Press release

29 May 2020 Dublin, IE

UK misses out on top spot for Foreign Direct Investment in 2019 but surged ahead in Digital as the economy transforms new EY report reveals

UK achieved a 5% increase in inbound FDI projects compared to 2018, ending three years of declining European market share since the EU Referendum

Press contact
EY Ireland

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

EY Ireland, a leading global professional services organisation providing assurance, tax, audit, strategy and transactions and consulting services.

  • 6,412 FDI projects announced in Europe in last year, a less than 1% uptick on 2018
  • Northern Ireland secured 28 new projects in 2019 vs 33 in 2018
  • Belfast secured 22 new projects in 2019 representing 10% increase on 2018 and retains fourth place in UK’s ‘Core Cities’ according to research by EY and the Centre For Towns

Belfast, 27 May 2020: The UK missed out on first place in the European rankings for total inbound foreign direct investment (FDI) projects in 2019, according to the EY 2020 UK Attractiveness Survey which launched today.

This is the first time the UK hasn’t occupied top spot since the survey started in 1997. The UK (1,109 projects in 2019) now sits second behind France (1,197). Germany is ranked in third place with 971 projects.  

The EY report examines the performance and perceptions of the UK as a destination for FDI, and this year includes a survey of 800 international investors looking at the impact of COVID-19 on investment.

UK Digital Strength

Despite losing the lead for total project numbers, 2019 was a strong year for the UK with a 5% increase in projects in a European market that grew by less than 1%. This meant the UK’s share of projects increased to 17.4%, up from 16.6% in 2018. This ends three years of declining market share for the UK since the 2016 EU referendum. The UK surged ahead in digital tech, attracting 432 projects (an increase of 114 – 36% – on the previous year) and attracting a 30% share of all European projects.

NI Figures

The report shows that Northern Ireland attracted 28 new projects in 2019 compared to 33 in 2019 (a 15% decrease) while new research from EY and the Centre For Towns, also published today, showed Belfast attracted 22 new projects in 2019, representing a 10% increase on last year.

These figures see Belfast retain a highly impressive fourth place on the UK Core Cities list, behind Manchester (33 new projects), Birmingham (30 new projects) and Glasgow (23 new projects). 

ROI attracted 191 projects in 2019, a 7% decrease on the exceptionally high 2018 figure of 205.

Commenting on the findings, Feargal De Freine, Partner and Head of FDI, EY Ireland said: The impressive growth in digital tech investments, and Belfast’s continued strong performance, are noteworthy elements of the UK results. While the reduction in the total number of projects on the island of Ireland may attract attention, it’s important to note that, for some time, the focus has been on the value and quality of the FDI rather than the volume. The new projects secured reflect an extension of the investor and project base, rather than solely building on past successes.”

The research suggests that NI should remain relatively resilient in its ability to attract FDI this year, despite the impact of COVID-19. The report indicates that investor intentions towards the UK as a whole, compared to other FDI destinations in Europe, remain relatively positive when they look beyond the immediate impact of COVID-19.

Survey respondents said that 65% of planned projects were still going ahead – including 6% who had actually increased their investment in light of COVID-19 – with only 3% saying they had completely cancelled their plans. By contrast, the corresponding figures for Europe revealed a more cautious approach from investors, with 66% planning to decrease investment and 23% pausing it, against 17% and 15% respectively for the UK.

Michael Hall, Managing Partner, EY Northern Ireland, commented:The evolution of FDI we are seeing across the UK is very evident in Northern Ireland. The emergence of clusters in film and media, cybersecurity and legal services in recent years typify this transformation. This is incredibly helpful with the twin challenges of Covid and Brexit creating a less ideal investment environment.

The UK’s excellent performance also highlights the concentration of investments in London, and from a local perspective, we believe that the next phase of our economic transformation must afford a much higher priority to achieving a better geographic balance. It is clear from our investor surveys that the government needs to place sustainability and levelling up at the heart of its infrastructure, skills and trade policies if it is to effect lasting change across the country.

“Moving towards a hi-tech economy, universities will also have crucial roles to play in developing talent and skills. This should form the basis for an expansion of their role as true civic establishments, playing a central part in their local economies and communities.”

Investing for recovery

The report highlights that to ensure continued attractiveness, international and European trade must be protected. EY’s analysis shows that investment projects from European companies into other European countries represented more than half (52%) of FDI in the past three years.

Michael added: “Brexit appears to be having little impact on US investors across the UK and there is the possibility that NI will present a unique investment opportunity when the UK leaves at the end of the year. This depends upon what form of agreement is reached and the specific treatment of NI within that.”

The ongoing transformation of FDI is expected to continue given the views of survey respondents. 39% of respondents ranked CleanTech first in terms of its potential to drive economic growth across Europe in the coming years. The digital economy sector ranks second, and the health care and well-being sector third.

Feargal concluded: “There is no doubt that the outlook for FDI will be extremely challenging as the world tries to recover from the economic and social impact of COVID-19 and in this new world there will be an additional lens front and centre: resiliency. The island of Ireland must be agile, and ensure we are prepared for future shocks, whether it be another pandemic, a mass cyber event or an environmental catastrophe.

This pandemic has highlighted the economic vulnerability of certain segments of society and demonstrated that the vulnerability of some increases the vulnerability of all. Businesses and governments should do all they can to protect not only the most vulnerable sectors but also the most at-risk people, including part-time, independent and gig workers.”


Notes to editors

About EY

EY is a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services. The insights and quality services we deliver help build trust and confidence in the capital markets and in economies the world over. We develop outstanding leaders who team to deliver on our promises to all of our stakeholders. In so doing, we play a critical role in building a better working world for our people, for our clients and for our communities.

EY refers to the global organization, and may refer to one or more, of the member firms of Ernst & Young Global Limited, each of which is a separate legal entity. Ernst & Young Global Limited, a UK company limited by guarantee, does not provide services to clients. For more information about our organization, please visit

This news release has been issued by EYGM Limited, a member of the global EY organization that also does not provide any services to clients.

About EY Attractiveness Survey

EY attractiveness surveys analyses 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 the CSA Institute in January and February 2020, based on a representative panel of 504 international decision-makers. Data collected around the impact of COVID-19 on FDI in Europe was conducted by Euromoney in April 2020, based on a representative panel of 113 international decision makers and a series of webinars with 30 European investment promotion agencies (IPA’s).