Original article on ey.com
Belgium remains in the top 5 European countries that attract the most foreign investments.
In 2019 too, Belgium remained an attractive country for foreign investors. Last year, our country welcomed 267 foreign direct investment (FDI) projects, which led to the creation of 5,401 jobs. This is what emerges from the EY Belgian Attractiveness Survey 2020, 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, but there’s a flip side to that because foreign investors’ perception of Belgium’s future attractiveness has never been so low. The COVID-19 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. The focus should be on mobility, digital skills, infrastructure, corporate taxation, and clean technology.
1. Belgium maintains market share of foreign direct investments (FDI) in Europe in 2019
In 2019 too, Belgium remained an attractive country for foreign investors. Last year, the country welcomed 267 investment projects, which led to the creation of 5,401 jobs. Belgium maintains its place in the Top 5 European countries that attract the most foreign investment, behind France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain.
2. New record number of new investment projects in Belgium
Belgium has never attracted so much new foreign investment. Of the 267 projects registered in 2019, 197 are entirely new projects (74%), while the others are extensions to existing projects. This number is largely attributed to new investment projects in the Brussels area, while Flanders and Wallonia each stay close to their share from the previous year.
3. Business services sector remains most important for FDI and transportation sector remains the lead job provider
Four key sectors together accounted for more than half (59%) of all FDI projects: business services (53 projects); transportation and logistics (42); digital (33); and agri-food business (28).
When looking at the number of jobs provided per sector, transportation and logistics remains the lead sector in providing jobs (1633). The agri-food business takes second place with 800 and the chemicals and plastic sector takes third place with 556 jobs.
4. Sales and marketing activities benefitted most from FDI, activities in manufacturing created the most jobs
Mainly three activities attracted a large number of investments in 2019: sales and marketing is largely in the lead with 105 projects, followed by the manufacturing with 60 projects and logistics with 51 projects. These three activities accounted for more than 80% of the foreign investments made in Belgium last year.
The activity that created the most jobs was manufacturing (2281 jobs), followed closely by logistics (1863 jobs). Sales and marketing takes third place with 369 jobs, a most notable difference with last year when it provided 1979 jobs.
“With the disruption created by the COVID-19 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.”Tristan Dhondt – EY WEM Transaction Advisory Services (TAS) Partner and TAS Leader for EU institutions
5. Record figures for Wallonia, but Flanders remains the most attractive
In terms of the figures by region, there is a big difference between reality and perception. 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. 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.
6. Investors in Europe ease off future projects, but don’t fully retreat
At the European level, the COVID-19 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.
7. Optimism for the future declines
Optimism about Belgium’s capacity to attract investments in the coming years has sharply declined in recent years, falling from 30% in 2018 to 28% in 2019 and 21% in 2020, and reaches its lowest level ever measured.
“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.”Marie-Laure Moreau – EY Belgium Assurance Partner and Regional Managing Partner Wallonia
8. Cost of labor and political instability are the main risks
The main risks to Belgium’s attractiveness over the next three years are labor 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).
9. Top priorities: education, attractive tax regime and dynamic high-tech and innovation environment
This year’s survey among foreign investors reveals a return to the forefront of corporate taxation as a decisive factor 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 companies questioned consider that reducing taxation 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.
10. Driver of future growth: Cleantech
One of the most significant trends emerging 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%). 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.
30% of respondents believe cleantech will be the business sector that drives Belgium’s growth in the coming years.
These are the policy measures EY Belgium suggests to ensure the attractiveness of Belgium for foreign investors in the long term.
Lowering the corporate tax rate from 33% to 25% in 2020 has had a positive impact, but neighboring countries have also lowered their tax rates, and to be comparable Belgium should lower its rate still further to at least 20%. Such a reduction should also be accompanied by a decrease in the individual income tax burden in order to attract more FDI.
- Reduce the corporate rate to 20% and simplify the system
- Widen knowledge of and access to the tax incentives that support innovation and R&D
- Lower the withholding tax on interest, dividends and royalties to a maximum rate of 10%
- Create a stable tax climate that ensures certainty over tax issues
- Ensure a legal and fiscal stable framework for companies and businesses
- Enforce and empower the Belgian Ruling Commission
The economic landscape is transforming from a manufacturing one to one based on technological innovation. The focus on education and training must, therefore, adjust accordingly and lead this change.
- Increase focus in primary and secondary schools on developing IT skills
- Provide structural training in entrepreneurship in educational programs
- Promote the teaching of digital skills
- Invest in durable life-long learning, allowing employees to retrain and participate in the digital economy in the long term
- Invest in the opportunities for learning at the workplace
- Address the structural underfunding of higher education
3.Supply chain and logistics
Now is a good time to rethink our business models. Supply chains have experienced difficulties during the COVID-19 crisis, suggesting the need to build more resilient ones that are less vulnerable to disruption from the closure of some operations. The pandemic has also reinforced the need for business models to be more agile and to exploit the opportunities offered by digitalization and online sales.
- Stimulate investment in the logistics and supply chains, including an inclusive mobility plan
In a post-pandemic period, new ways of working will be introduced. The health and well-being of employees will be key, the digital transformation essential. Continuous investments in expanding the digital skillsets, on-the-job-learning and communication are required.
Several important fiscal and social measures have been carried out over the past years to reduce the cost of employment and to increase flexibility, particularly in industrial sectors and logistics that are strong drivers of job creation.
- Analyze continuously the gap in labor costs with the most important trade partners of Belgium and act on the analysis
- Examine ways in which the cost of labor can be further reduced
- Modify labor law principles to facilitate night-& shift work, e-commerce and teleworking
- Reduce tax burden for individuals on professional income
- Increase employment driven tax incentives
- Focus on the digital transformation of employees, including supportive measures with respect to this new way of working (e.g. remote working, virtual, flexible) in a post-pandemic environment.
5.High-tech, cleantech and innovation environment
Although investments in new technologies tend to be smaller than those for other activities, they are often made by established businesses in the country. The priority must, therefore, be to continue to develop a dynamic, high-tech and innovative environment that attracts this type of investment. A third of respondents see clean technologies, for example, as a major driver of economic growth. The European Green Deal offers a stimulus to develop such innovative technologies, and Belgium has the opportunity to become a major player in the cleantech sector, among other sectors that are responding to the challenges of containing the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of climate change.
- Focus on the digital competitiveness of Belgium, including digital & sustainable infrastructure, digital skills/education and a dynamic ecosystem of technology and green tech companies
- Establish strong cleantech standards and policies
- Simplify fiscal measures supporting innovation
- Reduce the administrative burden of calculating CO2 emissions in order to facilitate the competitive advantage for companies of ecological transition
- Introduce incentives for companies to rethink their business models towards green growth
6.Collaborative ways of working and cooperation
Another key outcome of the pandemic could be a transformation of the idea of competition to include more collaborative ways of working. Large pharmaceuticals in Belgium are cooperating on research into a vaccine for the coronavirus, while furloughed workers have helped fill staffing shortages at supermarkets that were permitted to remain open during the lockdown. Innovative collaboration has increased during the crisis.
Moreover, greater cooperation between the regions of Belgium would help develop the country’s profile on the global stage. Bringing the three federal regions together would boost the country’s reputation and distinguish its different strengths.
After a record year in 2018, Belgium managed to maintain almost the same level of foreign investment (FDI) in 2019. Like almost every aspect of life, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted FDI. To remain attractive in this reframed business environment, Belgium – businesses, and governments together – must think creatively, act decisively, and put cohesion and collaboration at the heart of everything it does.