(CN) - Europe's highest court slammed Greece on Thursday for giving monopoly control to one organization for football betting.
Three UK-based rivals, SportingBet, Stanleybet International and William Hill, brought an action in Greece after the country rejected their applications to provide sports betting services there.
OPAP, a public limited company whose full name is Organismos prognostikon agonon podosfairou, has a 20-year deal to organize and operate games of chance and betting forms in Greece.
The state is a 3 percent shareholder. It approves regulations governing OPAP's activities and monitors the procedures through which games are organized. Under the monopoly arrangement, OPAP fixes the maximum of the bet and winnings per form, and may use up to 10 percent of the advertising space in stadiums and gyms free of charge.
But the British competitors said that the agreement violates EU law, which prohibits member states from granting exclusive gambling rights to a single company - unless the government is seeking to genuinely reduce access to gambling or to control its growth to combat criminality.
The Greek court referred the case to the Court of Justice, asking whether EU law specifically precludes national legislation that grants the exclusive right to operate games of change to a single entity.
In declaring the monopoly illegal Thursday, the Court of Justice gave Greece two options for rectifying the situation.
Greece can either liberalize its market or reform the monopoly, subjecting it "to effective and strict controls by public authorizes," according to the ruling.
If Greece chooses liberalization, the gambling market must operate in a transparent fashion and be open to competition from other companies in the 27-nation bloc that comprises the European Union.
The Court of Justice has previously addressed gambling monopolies in Austria, Germany and Italy.
In 2011, the European Commission told Greece to stop subsidizing its state-run casinos, entities that are analogous to state-run lotteries in the United States.
Greek law previously applied different rules for admissions to state-owned and private casinos. Both are required to charge 80 percent tax.
For admission to a public casino, a person would pay about $1.75, plus about $7 in taxes. But private casinos were required to charge $4.30 admission, plus $17.25 in taxes.
The EU's executive body concluded that this scheme distorts competition and trade, as many casino operators are international hotel groups.
The policy furthermore goes against a stated objective of discouraging gambling, as many low-priced state casinos neighbor large cities.
The commission ordered state-owned casinos to pay back the unfair subsidy, going back 10 years before the original complaint to 1999.