- The US remains the most important source of foreign investment in Belgium from outside of Europe, but China is nipping at its heels.
- The pandemic also shook up the sectoral breakdown of investment, with pharmaceuticals and logistics jumping in importance.
- Belgium's short-term prospects are good, as the economic recovery takes root, but there is less optimism about the country's long-term attractiveness.
- New growth opportunities will come from the green and digital twin transition.
Despite the global disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Belgium attracted 227 new foreign direct investment (FDI) projects in 2020 – the fifth most in Europe – according to EY’s 2021 Belgian Attractiveness Survey. Through these projects, foreign investors created 5,098 direct jobs in Belgium last year.
The number of FDI projects fell by 15% year-on-year, while the number of jobs created by foreign investors declined 5.6%, understandably given the economic uncertainty.
The pandemic, together with Brexit and other trends, shook up the league tables. After many years on top, the US was beaten to first place in 2020 by the UK in terms of investment projects and by France in terms of job creation.
Still, the US remains one of the most important sources of foreign investment in Belgium, accounting for 27 new projects (12% of total) and 979 new jobs (19% of total) last year. China continues its rise as a foreign investor, also with 27 projects – almost double the 2019 level – and the third most jobs created, behind only France and the US.
The US is one of most important sources of foreign investment in Belgium, accounting for 12% of new investment projects and 19% of jobs created by foreign investors in 2020.
COVID-19 also had a noticeable impact on the sectoral breakdown of foreign investment in Belgium. Most significantly, the pharmaceutical sector jumped from ninth place to third, as the number of investment projects grew from nine in 2019 to 22 in 2020.
These investments translated into jobs: 883 jobs were created by foreign investors in the pharmaceutical sector – a 194% year-on-year increase! Job creation also grew last year in the transport & logistics sector.
US companies are strong in both the pharmaceutical and logistics sectors in Belgium and certainly contributed to this growth.
Of the 227 FDI projects started in 2020, 185 or 82% were greenfield projects. In the report’s recommendations, EY raises its concern about the sharp decline in expansion projects: “We need to be mindful of the companies established here”.
A majority of survey respondents indicated that they plan to invest in Belgium in the coming year, as we emerge from the pandemic and the economic recovery takes root, but there is far less optimism about Belgium’s long-term attractiveness. Only 35% believe that Belgium’s attractiveness for foreign investment will improve in the next three years, compared to 62% who believe the same for Europe as a whole.
Why this discrepancy? What are foreign investors’ concerns about Belgium?
From the survey, EY identifies three main risks: (1) taxation; (2) labor costs; and (3) political, administrative and regulatory stability. These are the same three risks as last year, although taxation has now overtaken labor costs as the main concern for foreign investors in Belgium. In addition, Belgium’s mobility and transportation infrastructure is considered to have a negative influence on investment decisions.
All of these concerns are shared by AmCham Belgium’s member companies. They are taken up in our own Priorities for a Prosperous Belgium (PPB), where we present policy recommendations for the Belgian federal and regional governments.
While Belgium will need to address these concerns to improve its attractiveness for foreign investors, the country also has plenty of assets – and opportunities.
Investors appreciate the quality of the workforce, the entrepreneurial culture and the market size, according to EY. Opportunities will come from the green and digital twin transition. Survey respondents believe that cleantech and renewables, in particular, will drive growth in the years ahead, spurred by the EU Green Deal and the need to create sustainable business models.
Our ambition is for Belgium to become a top destination for foreign direct investment, and EY’s annual Attractiveness Survey is a useful benchmark. We’re committed to working with all levels of government, on the basis of our PPB, to make Belgium more attractive for foreign investors.
About the author
Maud assists the policy team and the Committee members in their mission. Before joining AmCham Belgium, she worked and lived throughout Europe and China, which built up her interest in sharing and learning from others.