State aid: Commission opens in-depth investigation into the authorisation granted by Belgium to Ladbrokes to operate virtual betting

The European Commission has opened an in-depth investigation to assess whether the right granted by Belgium to Ladbrokes to operate virtual betting in Belgium is in line with EU State aid rules. In March 2019, two gaming operators lodged a complaint to the Commission alleging that Belgium granted incompatible State aid to Ladbrokes in the form of an exclusive right to operate virtual betting. Ladbrokes is a global betting and gambling company with almost 300 betting offices in Belgium. Virtual betting is a game of chance combining features of random games of chance (such as slot machines) and betting (e.g. on sports games), and until recently Belgium did not have a specific legal framework to regulate such games. Upon request by Ladbrokes, the federal regulator controlling the gaming sector in Belgium (the Gaming Commission), authorised Ladbrokes to operate virtual betting, in particular in betting outlets (in February 2014) and online (in March 2015). However, it later denied other operators that same right in several instances in 2015-2016 upon their requests, citing its ongoing reflexion on the appropriate regulatory framework. The Gaming Commission did not rescind Ladbrokes’ authorisation during this period. At this stage, the Commission has concerns that the authorisation granted to Ladbrokes may have resulted in the betting company enjoying a de facto exclusive right to operate virtual betting in Belgium since 2014, without any remuneration in favour of the Belgian state by Ladbrokes in return. The measure may have distorted competition and the Commission has doubts that it complies with EU State aid rules. The Commission will now investigate further to determine whether its initial concerns are confirmed. The opening of an in-depth investigation gives Belgium, the complainants and other interested third parties an opportunity to submit comments. It does not prejudge the outcome of the investigation. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.53630 in the State aid register on the Commission’s competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of state aid decisions on the internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the State Aid Weekly e-News.