EU gets the urge to go to the bookies
Europe's move to deal with dangers of online gambling is welcome, but will not be a winner
Published 20/07/2014 | 02:30
The European Commission has issued new recommendations in relation to online gambling, which it hopes will "safeguard health and minimise the eventual economic harm" suffered by the punters.
It is easy to dismiss this as a pious and a conservative document which will achieve nothing of any value. Which shouldn't stop us dismissing it, as we are about to do in a moment. But we should still acknowledge that the fine minds of the European Commission, God love them, have at last noticed that something very strange and very troubling is going on here, which has moved them to make some sort of a statement, to conceive the vague outline of a plan. The leaders of our political parties have a plan too, which largely involves kicking off the next election campaign by having their pictures taken laughing their heads off in betting offices, backing themselves to win 70 seats, to show the voters what great crack they are.
For the few of us still keeping vigil on this phenomenon, there will be darker visions of bankruptcies and divorces and suicides, but sure, it's a free country.
And so we observe the EU in its apparent innocence approaching this matter with great delicacy, each suggestion looking like it could have been designed by the betting corporations themselves, who are of course "stakeholders" in all this in the most literal sense. The commission is doing a lot of "urging", which is not quite the same as actually doing anything, but which makes them feel good about themselves, and to them that is no small thing.
So it urges a process whereby players are given the chance to set spending limits, or to sign up for alerts about their winnings or losses as they bet online. That won't work.
There are similar systems already in place, and they don't work, nor in truth are they intended to work on any level other than to provide the material for a great heap of PR bullshit.
To put it simply, if you reach your limits with one betting corporation, you just sign up with another one. At a more nuanced level, it entirely misses the point that people who feel that they need to impose these fearful "limits" on themselves in the first place clearly have a problem, one that might well be called an "addiction". And as we know, it is not beyond the ingenuity of those in addiction to get around the various strictures they might impose upon themselves in a misguided moment of righteousness.
We all understand that the man who swears to himself that he will drink only two pints and then go home, may somehow find a way to drink 17 pints, and to take it from there. Yet the EU Commission seems to think that it can "urge" betting corporations and addicted gamblers, acting in concert, to carry on their business like it was a Whist Drive on a Wednesday evening in the Temperance Hall. It is also "urging" member states to take measures which prevent minors from gambling online, and to ensure that their contact with gambling, through advertising, for example, is kept to a minimum.
That won't work. And of the myriad ways in which its unworkability can be shown, perhaps the most obvious is to look at the many football clubs which are now sponsored by betting corporations. Indeed the most glamorous club in the world, Real Madrid, had the name of an online betting firm plastered across its shirts.
What would you do to prevent minors from being exposed to that, I wonder? Well, one thing you could do, is to "urge" an end to the advertising of gambling altogether.
That would work, as would a massive levy on the betting corporations to fund the treatment of the many addicts that they have cultivated and indeed helped to create. And a 20pc tax on every online bet would work, just to strike some note of discouragement, to make online gambling just a little bit harder than it is - but no harder than betting used to be in Ireland in that strange time before Charlie McCreevy, when for every pound you staked in an SP office, you had to hand £1.20 over the counter in actual money.
Yes, all that would work, but none of it is going to happen, because as with other areas of the financial services sector, it would smack of over-regulation and the worst excesses of the nanny state and anyway, it's all going so well, right?
So instead there are more urgings to have the equivalent of "health warnings" on gambling adverts - which won't work, because part of the subtle essence of gambling is that, unlike smoking or drinking, you can't warn against it with startling images of physical decay.
That's another design flaw in the EU's fine scheme. The issue of money-laundering on a gargantuan scale is also overlooked.
But perhaps the most poignant weakness is this presumption of goodwill on the part of the betting corporations, the notion that they might sincerely want to discourage addiction among their clientele.
Everything that we have learned on this matter in recent years suggests that the opposite is true, that they have devised all sorts of brilliant methods, not to fight addiction but to encourage it wherever they find it. And they are finding a lot of it.