By Foo Yun Chee and George Georgiopoulos
BRUSSELS/ATHENS Jan 24 OPAP's
gambling monopoly in Greece is illegal, Europe's highest court
ruled, pushing the company's shares down by more than 11 percent
as investors fret over the threat to its market dominance.
However, judges at the Luxembourg-based European Court of
Justice (ECJ) also said Greek authorities may not need to open
up the sector if they implement reforms to protect consumers.
The verdict on Thursday was in response to a challenge by
rivals William Hill, SportingBet and Stanleybet
against OPAP's monopoly in a Greek court, which subsequently
sought advice from the ECJ.
EU rules prohibit national laws from granting exclusive
gambling rights to a single company, unless the authorities are
genuinely reducing access to gambling and controlling expansion
of the sector to combat criminality, the ECJ said in a
Shares in OPAP shed as much as 21 percent after the ruling.
They ended 11.5 pct lower at 6.26 euros on Thursday.
"The court ruling reduces the future value of OPAP as it
opens up the market," said Theodore Krintas, head of wealth
management at Attica Bank.
The Greek state is selling 33 percent of OPAP, almost its
entire stake, as part of a privatisation drive agreed with its
international lenders in return for its EU/IMF bailout.
"It highlights the need to act fast and not let things drag
on once privatisation decisions are taken at a government level.
The ruling is a good example that delays may allow future
developments to affect the valuation of the asset," added
OPAP said it backed the country's gambling policy adding
that it has one of the most restrictive laws in Europe.
The Luxembourg court had in previous cases found problems
with gambling monopolies in Italy, Germany and Austria.
Judges said Greece must either liberalise the market,
opening it up to competition and treating local and foreign
operators equally, or reform OPAP's monopoly.
Liberalising the market is not compulsory under EU law.
If the Greek authorities determined that opening gambling to
competition would not allow for sufficient consumer protection,
Greece could undertake "reforms of the monopoly and make it
subject to effective and strict controls by the public
authorities", the court said.