"Online gambling is a cross-border market. Consumption is cross-border as well. Clearly there’s a strong need for harmonised rules," said Ligné, who is secretary-general of the EGBA, which represents such firms as bwin, Unibet, BetClic and Party Gaming.
"We think there is good momentum for the EU to assume strong leadership in this area," she added, drawing attention to the €10 billion European online gaming market.
But Ligné believes the EU has a long way to go before it can claim to have achieved a fully-functioning single market for online gaming and betting.
"For years now the issue has been brought up by the European Court of Justice or discussed in the EU institutions […] clearly now it’s time for decisions," she said.
Commission to launch consultation tomorrow
EU Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier will launch a public consultation on online gambling services in the internal market tomorrow.
The consultation will seek to address "all relevant public policy challenges and possible internal market issues resulting from the rapid development of both licit and unlawful online gambling offers directed at citizens located in the EU," according to a draft copy of the Green Paper, seen by EurActiv.
Different national regulatory models for gambling co-exist across the EU as the European market is currently regulated by EU governments at national level. National markets tend to be dominated by strictly-controlled monopolies or licensed operators operating within heavily-regulated frameworks.
However, "the development of the Internet and the increased supply of online gambling services have […] made it more difficult for these different national regulatory models to co-exist," reads the draft Green Paper, which invites stakeholders to consider whether "greater cooperation at EU level might help member states to achieve more effectively the objectives of their gambling policy".
"Obviously today we’re facing regulatory approaches that are very different from one member state to another," said the EGBA’s Ligné, complaining that EU countries are "developing different requirements to achieve the same objectives".
She drew attention to the industry’s tendency in the last few years "to move from a prohibitive or monopolistic approach to the market to a regulated approach," which she described as "a positive trend".
Towards an EU ‘common framework’
"We feel the EU has an important role to play in harmonising rules" and establishing "a common framework," Ligné said, adding that the European Commission should "fight the adoption or implementation of protectionist regulations in the member states".
The EGBA represents leading online gaming and betting operators that are based and licensed within EU jurisdiction and seeks to promote the development of fair regulations that take into account the cross-border and online dimensions of the industry.
"It’s important from an internal market perspective and from a competition point of view that the restrictions that are enforced at national level are not hidden protectionist measures, and are there to serve the people and not to preserve national incumbents," Ligné said.
"There must be a fair competitive approach in the sector," she added.
She was echoed by Khalid Ali of the European Sports Security Association, which monitors irregular betting patterns in Europe, investigates whether they are suspicious or not, and alerts the relevant sports federations if necessary.
"Top of my list is really ensuring a competitive landscape, because this is what will give European bookmakers the edge over their international rivals," Ali, who is secretary-general of ESSA, told EurActiv in a separate interview.
According to him, online gambling will also help to support Europe in today's climate of innovation and competition, as EU companies "are leading the way" in coming up with new standards and new technologies, including security measures and online streaming facilities.
The EGBA’s Ligné agreed that the industry can play a role in boosting the EU single market and achieving the goals of the bloc’s Digital Agenda.
"There are lots of restrictions and barriers that still exist today in a number of member states. These are preventing our sector from achieving its full economic potential," she said.
Germany prohibits online gambling altogether, while other member states allow it but only under restricted circumstances, the industry representative explained. "Clearly better enforcement of internal market and competition rules in our sector would allow it to contribute fully to the European economy," Ligné said.
"Clearly it’s a high-level technology area and therefore the policy challenges faced are a clear test case for the digital internal market," she added.
EU gambling industry ‘favourable to regulation’
Asked whether the Green Paper should lead to tighter regulation of the sector by Brussels, Ligné said the fast pace of innovation in a sector characterised by rapid technological development meant it was important for regulators to promote "self-regulatory efforts by industry to go beyond and develop best practice" of its own accord.
A self-regulatory approach will "ensure that customers can benefit from these innovations without necessarily waiting to be included in regulations that can sometime take more time to develop and to adopt," the EGBA chief said.
"Self-regulation or standardisation is very complementary to regulation. Whether at national or EU level, we feel that online gambling is a sector that needs to be regulated," Ligné stressed.
She drew attention to the industry's efforts to put in place rules and procedures to tackle the problems faced by online gambling firms, including money laundering, data protection and underage gambling.
"The Internet offers unique opportunities to develop safe and secure protection tools for online gamblers," Ligné said, pointing to easy access to 24/7 support services and technologies that verify the age and ID of players, ensure full transparency and traceability of transactions, and give users the opportunity "to set themselves their own limits and self-exclude" if necessary.
"That’s evidence that […] workable solutions exist today, and we expect these to be the basis of discussion […] in the context of the Green Paper and possible solutions at EU level," the EGBA chief declared.
"Wherever there is an added value given the cross-border dimension, harmonised European solutions should be discussed," she added.
Asked what she expected to see come out of the EU’s new sports programme, unveiled by Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou in January, Ligné said "the question of integrity is important".
"There are also questions related to financial synergies between the world of sport and the world of sports betting. Gaming companies are among the top three sectors in sports sponsorship, and we feel that the two sectors have a natural interest in collaborating and developing partnerships," the industry representative added.