- Belgium reaffirms its position as an important logistics hub
Belgium saw the number of investment projects rise faster than the European average in 2021. This is one of the main conclusions of the 2022 edition of the Belgian Attractiveness Survey, an annual study conducted by EY that gauges the attractiveness of Belgium as a location for investment. But because a few countries, especially France and Turkey, recorded an even faster uptick in foreign direct investment (FDI), Belgium loses one spot on the European ranking, dropping from fifth to sixth place. The growth in FDI projects reflects a strong rise in activity by foreign investors in Belgium after the downturn that hit the Belgian economy in 2020, even though the number of projects stayed below the pre-pandemic level of 2019. The United States reclaimed its position as largest foreign investor in Belgium.
After the tumultuous COVID years of 2019 and 2020, this year’s Attractiveness Survey reflects a world that slowly recovers from the effects of the global pandemic. As the European numbers show, the recovery in 2021 has been gradual but real. Overall, Europe saw an increase in foreign investment projects of 5% compared to 2020, with a total of 5,877 projects. This figure is encouraging, even if it remains 12% below the record level of 2017.
The good news from this year’s report is that Belgium outperforms the European average with an increase of 8% in FDI projects, with a total of 245 investment projects. The even better news is that these foreign investments generated 6,968 jobs in 2021, which represents a growth of 37% compared to last year. Like in previous years, Belgium’s FDI performance was mainly driven by new projects. Out of 245 projects, 80% of them were new.
Belgium drops out of the top 5, France is Europe’s standout performer
Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop Belgium from leaving the European top five, dropping from fifth to sixth place. But this is mostly due to the marked recovery in Turkey, which saw an increase of 27% in the number of FDI projects. Generally speaking, it is clear that the European average growth hides many big divergencies. Italy, for example, saw an 83% recovery, after having been heavily impacted by the COVID restrictions in 2020. The weak Russian performance (-28%) predates the actual start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, but it is worth noting that tensions were already building up throughout 2021, creating an uncertain investment climate.
Looking at the European podium, there is now a clear gold, silver and bronze in the country FDI rankings. In 2020, France, Germany and the UK were virtually tied in first place as the largest recipients of foreign investment within Europe. That all changed in 2021, as France clearly became Europe’s standout performer. The number of announced projects in France rocketed 24% to 1,222 projects. In stark contrast, the number of projects in Germany tumbled 10% to 841. Investment in the UK remained steady, increasing 2%.
Flanders reaffirms position as main destination for FDI in Belgium
This year’s Belgian Attractiveness Survey also shows that the United States reaffirm its position as the main source of FDI projects in Belgium with a year-on-year growth in projects of 70%, after ceding the top spot to the UK in the COVID-year 2020 and ranking even below the Netherlands and last year’s surprise China. On the contrary, China did not follow through in 2021. While remaining the largest emerging markets investor, the number of Chinese FDI projects almost halved. This was particularly felt in the Walloon Region, where China was the biggest investor in 2020. The UK, which managed to grow its number of projects in a post-Brexit world and despite the pandemic in 2020, kept a steady growth pace in 2021, securing the second position in the overall ranking.
Zooming in on the regions, the Flemish region remains by far the most important destination for FDI in Belgium, with 141 projects or roughly 60% of all investment activity in Belgium. It’s in this region that the US was particularly active. In the Walloon region, which welcomed 46 investment projects in 2021, the recovery in French FDI projects was insufficient to compensate for the sharp drop in Chinese investments. In Brussels, the recovery of last year was insufficient to bring the region back to 2019 levels, with a total of 58 projects in 2021.
Belgium reaffirms its position as an important logistics hub
Five key sectors were the drivers of FDI activity in Belgium throughout 2021, but we do see some variations in the ranking. Transportation & Logistics reclaims the number one spot from Business Services, while the Pharmaceuticals sector slowed down a bit after a very busy year, allowing Software & IT Services to overtake it to claim the third spot.
When it comes to types of investment projects, it is worth noting the marked jump in logistics investments, claiming the top position with 65 projects. In 2020, this class of investments didn’t even make it into the top three. The former “champion”, sales & marketing, drops to the third position. Manufacturing held on to its second place.
“Logistics has always been a pillar of Belgium’s attractiveness for FDI, and this is further reinforced by the general trend towards re- and nearshoring by companies who want to shield their supply chains better from global disruptions. On top of that, it is encouraging to see that investors applaud Belgium’s potential to decarbonize its supply chain. This kind of future-proofing ensures Belgium’s strong position in logistics for the longer term”, comments Tristan Dhondt, partner at EY Belgium.
Investors keep on hitting on the same nails
Every year, the Attractiveness Survey also takes a look at the perception of the attractiveness of Belgium for foreign investors. At this stage, it is of course hard to assess what the precise impact of the conflict in Ukraine will be on Belgium’s attractiveness in the coming months, but nevertheless, this year’s study shows some clear opinions about the specific strengths and weaknesses of Belgium as a potential investment destination. It is very encouraging to notice, for example, that Belgium is now much closer to the European average than last year. Overall, 54% of respondents see an improvement in Belgium’s attractiveness. Last year, that number was only 35%, with the majority of respondents predicting a status-quo.
Despite this positive trend, Belgium can’t seem to shake its main risks to its attractiveness. Investors remain preoccupied by the tax regime, the instability of the political, regulatory and administrative climate and the shortage and cost of the workforce. On a more positive note, the quality of the Belgian workforce is seen as a strong point by foreign investors, compared to the rest of Europe. Belgium clearly does well in the field of investment in digital skills, for example.
“It’s clear that Belgium has strong assets to present to foreign investors. There is, however, no room for complacency. It should be noted that investors keep on hitting on the same nails when asked about the main risks that affect the attractiveness in Belgium for the years to come. Belgium’s tax regime and the political, regulatory and administrative instability keep popping up all the way on top of that list. Justified or not, these concerns must be addressed”, says Marie-Laure Moreau, partner at EY Belgium.
Patrick Rottiers, CEO EY Belgium, concludes: “A sixth place for a relatively small economy behind giants such as France and Germany is far from a weak performance. Belgium’s open and pragmatic nature, coupled with the internationally acclaimed multilingual workforce, makes our country an attractive destination for investors. It’s clear that Belgium has strong assets to present to foreign investors. But the last thing we need is complacency. Belgium has to defend its reputation as a logistic trade hub.”
Recommendation to boost the attractiveness of Belgium for foreign investors
These are the policy measures suggested by EY Belgium to ensure the attractiveness of Belgium for foreign investors in the long term (full details on www.ey.com/be/attractiveness):
- Pay more attention to the established companies
- Increase digitalization
- Focus on sustainable development
- Establish and maintain a stable and reliable tax system
- Take care of talent
About the Belgian Attractiveness Survey
The EY attractiveness surveys analyse the attractiveness of a particular region or country as an investment destination. The surveys are designed to help businesses make investment decisions and governments remove barriers to growth. A two-step methodology analyses both the reality and perception of FDI in the country or region.
The evaluation of the reality of FDI in Europe is based on the EY European Investment Monitor (EIM), the proprietary EY database, produced in collaboration with OCO. The field research was conducted by EuroMoney in March of 2021 through online interviews, based on a representative panel of 206 international decision-makers, both inside (69%) and outside (31%) of Belgium.
Read full the full report on www.ey.com/be/attractiveness