Betting in Belgium

As the host of government for the European Union, Belgium ought to set an example regarding trade and diplomacy, but that has not been the case of late as regards gambling legislation. Since 2010, the country has moved more and more toward restrictive laws governing gambling activities, a direction which has set it on a collision course with the European Commission.

Prior to 2010, Belgium was actually one of the more open-minded nations of Europe as far as gambling was concerned. The country has a rich history of wagering activities, as evidenced by documents that reference card games in the 14th-century and the establishment of a national lottery in the 15th century.

In the course of rebuilding itself after World War II, Belgium allowed all kinds of gambling activities, from horseracing to casinos. As a result, some 25 gaming venues exist today throughout the country, including three casinos in Liege and one in Brussels, plus a “circus” or casino in each of 21 other cities.

Additionally, there are horseracing courses known as “hippodromes” at Mons-Ghlin and Waregem. Harness racing is quite popular as well as thoroughbreds, with betting available trackside at race books. To gamble at the casinos or tracks, customers must be at least 21 years of age.

A modern national lottery was instituted back in 1934. It was reinstituted after the War, and in 2002 the National Lottery Act was revised to allow a state monopoly for online lotteries. Available are a variety of games, from instant-win scratch cards to weekly draws for Lotto, Euro Million, Keno, Pick 3 and Joker, to name but a few of the national favourites.

Sports betting is legal and highly popular across Belgium. Indeed, some betting shops have been around for decades. Although efforts have been made to regulate them, bookmakers—even foreign ones—are allowed to operate pretty much at will, offering markets for most major sporting events and football matches in particular.

This openness has created quite an opportunity for high street bookmakers from London. One to take full advantage of the situation has been Ladbrokes, currently operating some 438 bet shops throughout Belgium.

As might be expected, Belgian Internet betting is fully legal, too. However, this is where the confrontation with the European Commission begins. According to new Belgian laws brought forward in 2010, foreign-based online casinos, poker rooms and sportsbooks are prohibited from operating web sites in Belgium. Only companies like Ladbrokes, who already have a license for bet shops, may offer local online betting services to players in Belgium in French, German and Dutch.

The Belgian laws further indicate severe punishments for anyone advertising, offering or promoting unlicensed gambling services to Belgian citizens. Local affiliates and casino marketers of offshore web sites could be arrested. In response, Betfair, Telebet and the Remote Gambling Association (RGA) went before the Belgian Constitutional Court and challenged the restrictions, only to have their lawsuits dismissed.

As a result, for now at least, companies that would like to offer online gambling services within Belgium’s borders must first obtain a land-based license and then set up their servers on Belgian soil. Their operations would thereafter fall under the jurisdiction of the Belgian Gaming Commission.

The laws do not, however, target Belgian citizens who wager at international online bookmakers hosted in other countries. Therefore, no fewer than 474 sports betting web sites still accept play from those with addresses in Belgium. Among them are Unibet, Bet365, Paddy Power, Gamebookers, Expekt, Party Bets and BetFred, to name but a few of the largest.