EU Bytes October 2017

The autumn season is at the door and like every year, half the population of Brussels has a cold. This is most probably attributable to all the handshakes and shared office spaces. I have been spared for now but at some point, one of the many people who are working hard instead of staying at home and recovering will probably share more than just their information with me. So, let me filter out the EU bugs and give you the bytes.

This month’s update will focus on a variety of issues. I will be looking at gambling-related sports issues, and tackling illegal content. And, as always, there is no Brussels without Brexit, but even more now, the question of the future of Europe. But before I dive into this month’s edition, I want to ask you to join me in sending warm wishes to our friends and colleagues based in Las Vegas and those that went to the G2E Global Gaming Expo in light of the tragic events that took place at the beginning of October.

Tackling illegal content

In the last edition I provided some highlights on the debate surrounding illegal gambling operations. On 28th September, the European Commission published a non-binding Communication on tackling illegal content online. It provides “guidelines and principles for online platforms to step up the fight against illegal content online in cooperation with national authorities, Member States and other relevant stakeholders”. Although no specific reference is made to gambling, many key issues reflected therein could be tied to what Member States would consider questions relevant to their gambling regime and, as such tackling illegal gambling operations. It aims, for example, to…

“…facilitate and intensify the implementation of good practices for preventing, detecting, removing and disabling access to illegal content so as to ensure the effective removal of illegal content.”

“…improve the online environment for children.”

And, a legislative follow-up is not ruled out. The Commission in its Communication has set out to hold dialogues with online platforms and other relevant stakeholders. We might see such a next step in May 2018, depending on progress made and loopholes in effective implementation of the guidelines. Some might see it as a warning to the online platforms when looking at how the European Commission tackled roaming charges as it saw that sufficient progress was not made by mobile network operators to lower cross-border phone charges in the EU.

The gambling of sports

Sports is increasingly becoming subject to policy, also because of its increasing role in society. We all know about sports as an integration tool (especially in light of the current migration crisis facing the EU), as well as the importance of keeping a high level of integrity for inter alia sports events organisers and betting operators. But what is concretely being done?

With meetings every two to three weeks, the Council of the European Union (CoEU) Working Party on Sport under the Estonian Presidency is looking on further developing the EU structured dialogue in sport. This would set out the opportunity for gambling operators to highlight the importance of combatting match-fixing, and to try and profile themselves as forefront actors on the issue.

The Working Party is also focusing on the role of coaches in society. Planned are non-binding Council Conclusions which are built on consensus before the end of the Estonian Presidency of the CoEU (end of 2017). More opportunity or necessity for discussions on the integrity of sport?

Commission Online Gambling Recommendation Revisited

Following up from the last two editions of EU bytes, the most recent development on Belgium taking the European Commission to court over its “Recommendation on principles for the protection of consumers and players of online gambling services and for the prevention of minors from gambling online”: The Opinion of the Advocate General in the EU’s General Court which was originally announced for 26th September has been postponed. The new date is yet to be confirmed. Quick reminder of the significance: If the court decides to take the Belgian view, resounding effects on the “governance” of gambling at EU level, but for other sectors as well, are to be expected.

New bricks of Brexit

The last weeks beginning of October haves been packed with two sets of negotiation rounds (4th & 5th) between the UK and EU-27 (all EU Member States minus UK). The 4th round, originally planned for mid-September was postponed. October is also the target month for the European Commission to move from the 1st phase of negotiations (the divorce settlement) and the move to the 2nd phase of negotiations: The temporary and permanent structures of EU-UK relations. The European Council which will bring together the leaders of the EU-27 will decide on 19-20th October whether sufficient progress has been made on the three themes to move onto the next phase. You may remember: (1) financial settlement, (2) the question of the island of Ireland and the border, and (3) EU citizen’s rights.

Things are picking up pace, not in terms of progress, but negotiation tactics. October could very well not see a move to the next phase. The next opportunity would be at the European Council meeting on 14-15 December in Brussels, but this will depend on the negotiation tactics of the UK and whether the EU-27 will remain united on their view that more needs to be done by the UK.

So, what about the negotiation tactics? The UK feels it has conceded enough towards the EU-27 in terms of fulfilling their requests, most recently on the question of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over UK law. The Prime Minister, Theresa May decided to no longer rule out the court’s applicability in the UK during any Brexit transition period. Not a popular decision for many Brexiteers, as this is a key issue of sovereignty. It seems though that May is attempting to appease their voices by threatening the EU with a hard Brexit – a cold severance of ties between the two – if the EU does not provide concessions, such as moving to Phase 2.

What about EU-27 solidarity? Is it being threatened? It seems pretty clear that Member States are copying the statement with varying degrees of dismay, incomprehensibility and fatigue: “UK is not making any progress.” “UK needs to make more progress.” “Why is the UK not making progress?” But, there are many reasons why a divide and conquer the EU-27 approach could be successful. This includes differences in trade volumes with the UK between the countries, or that some might see UK military assistance as more pertinent due to Russia. Will it be successful during Phase 1? Unlikely. Even the European Parliament in a non-binding report insisted that Phase 1 conditions need to be satisfied before moving on. This was supported by two UK Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from May’s Conservative Party who were subsequently suspended. 18 UK MEPs from the opposing Labour Party had done the same.

What else?

The European project is constantly challenged, no surprise. Questions of the proper separation of state and judiciary are being raised with regard to Hungary and Poland. In Germany, the first far-right party (AfD) has entered the German Parliament (Bundestag), arguably since WWII. Catalunya is playing with the idea of leaving Spain which has already resulted in violence during, what was deemed, an illegal vote for independence. The Netherlands has finally agreed on a coalition between four (in many cases very) different parties, 208 days after the election.

This is the backdrop against which President of the European Council Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker are looking to pool the EU-27 leader’s views and will to reform Europe. The plan is to vote on the reforms the day after the anticipated Brexit separation deadline in March 2019.

Greetings from Brussels.