Focus should be on mobility, digital skills, infrastructure, corporate taxation and clean technology
In 2019 too, Belgium remained an attractive country for foreign investors. Last year, our country welcomed 267 investment projects, which led to the creation of 5,401 jobs. This is what emerges from the Belgian Attractiveness Survey, an annual study conducted by EY that gauges the attractiveness of Belgium as a location for investment. Belgium maintains its place in the Top 5 European countries that attract the most foreign investment, behind France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain. But there’s a flip side to that, because foreign investors' perception of Belgium's future attractiveness has never been so low. The coronavirus crisis only adds to the worries: at European level, 9 out of 10 companies plan to reduce, postpone or cancel their investment projects. More than ever, the various governments in our country will have to adopt strong measures to support businesses if they want to continue to attract foreign investors.
After a record year in 2018, Belgium managed to maintain almost the same level of foreign investment in 2019. Last year, Belgium welcomed 267 new investment projects, a slight decrease of 4% compared to 2018.
A particularly encouraging element is the fact that Belgium has never attracted so much new foreign investment. Of the 267 projects registered in 2019, 197 are entirely new projects, while the others are extensions to existing projects.
"Even if the perception of our country's attractiveness to foreign investors can give a rather gloomy picture, the actual investment figures remain very good for a small country like Belgium. The fact that there have never been as many new investment projects as in 2019 shows that we are actually in a better position than last year and that a solid foundation has been laid for growth in the coming years," says Marie-Laure Moreau, partner at EY Belgium.
In the European ranking of foreign investments, Belgium maintains its position in fifth place, leaving the Netherlands behind once again. For the first time, it is France that takes the lead in the ranking in 2019, recording a 17% increase in 2019 to reach a total of 1,197 foreign investments on its territory, which represents a market share of nearly 20% on a European scale. Just behind France, we find the United Kingdom, which recorded a solid performance despite the Brexit with 1,109 foreign investments, and Germany, which is slightly down with 971 investment projects.
In 2019, the United States were once again the investment champion in Belgium, with a total of 45 projects, followed closely by France, which ranks second with 42 projects. Note the remarkable progress of the United Kingdom, which continues to find Belgium particularly attractive: the number of British investments in our country rose from 13 in 2017 to 25 in 2018 and even 34 in 2019. The Netherlands and Germany complete the top 5, with 28 and 24 investments in Belgium last year, respectively. These five countries accounted for 65% of all foreign investments in our country in 2019.
The Belgian Attractiveness Survey shows that it is mainly three business activities that attracted a large number of investments in 2019: the sales and marketing sector is largely in the lead with 105 projects, followed by the manufacturing industry with 60 projects and logistics with 51 projects. These three sectors accounted for more than 80% of the foreign investments made in Belgium last year.
In terms of the figures by region, there is a big difference between reality and perception in the Attractiveness Survey 2020. In terms of actual investment figures, Wallonia and Brussels have never done so well, with 64 and 76 investment projects respectively in 2019, representing an increase of 33% for Wallonia and 25% for Brussels. In terms of job creation per project, Flanders and Wallonia continue to maintain the high trend of +27 jobs / project, while Brussels projects create virtually no jobs. Despite a decline of 24% compared to 2018, Flanders remains the region that attracts the most foreign investment in Belgium.
The picture is radically different when looking at the figures from the perception survey. It shows that Flanders has strengthened its position as the most attractive region in Belgium (50% in 2020 against 40% in 2019), while Brussels remains in second place (31% in 2020 against 39% in 2019) and Wallonia falls sharply.
At the European level, an additional study conducted by EY in April 2020 reveals that the coronavirus pandemic is having a very strong impact on future foreign investment. Only 11% of the companies surveyed believe that Covid-19 will not change their investment plans in 2020. At the same time, 51% of companies expect a slight decrease, 15% expect a substantial decrease and 23% plan to postpone new projects completely until 2021. Covid-19 also has an impact on projects announced in 2019, as 25% of these projects are delayed and 10% are cancelled. This unprecedented situation calls for strong gestures on the part of the various governments in Belgium.
Mobility is also a very important factor in the decision to invest in one country rather than another. The figures of the Survey 2020 show an encouraging improvement in the perception of the quality of mobility in our country, but for Tristan Dhondt, partner at EY Belgium, we need to go one step further. “With the disruption created by the coronavirus pandemic, companies will seek to reduce the risks to their supply chains by expanding their logistics options. While Belgium's location should allow it to remain a hub in Europe, improving its transport infrastructure will become increasingly important.,” he says.
This year's survey also reveals a return to the forefront of corporate taxation and labour cost as decisive factors in investment decisions. Nearly half of the respondents say that the level of corporate taxation has a significant influence on their investment plans in our country. Logically, therefore, a large number of the firms questioned consider that reducing taxation (including on labor) should be one of Belgium's main priorities for improving its competitiveness, along with the development of education and skills, and support for the technology industry and innovation.
The main risks to Belgium's attractiveness over the next three years are labour costs (47%), followed by political, regulatory and administrative instability (38%) and the level and complexity of taxation (37%). Political instability is particularly worrying for companies already established in Belgium (47% compared with 23% for companies not established in Belgium).
One of the most significant trends emerging from this year's Attractiveness Survey is the growing importance of clean technologies. Nearly a third (30%) of respondents believe that the clean technology and renewable energy sector will be the main driver of growth in Belgium in the coming years, ahead of business services (27%) and the digital economy (23%). Last year, clean technologies were only ranked fifth. Support for these clean technologies has become a key element for foreign investors, with two thirds of respondents stating that they play an important role in their investment decisions.
“If governments provide the necessary support and investment in this sector continues to increase, Belgium could become a leader in clean technologies, even more so if it manages to link the development of these technologies to the COVID-19 virus. Further commitment to clean technologies could become a major opportunity for Belgium,” concludes Tristan Dhondt, partner at EY Belgium.