Antwerp is increasingly falling out of favor with foreign investors, the main reason being… the high national debt

Antwerp is increasingly falling out of favor with foreign investors, the main reason being… the high national debt
Antwerp is increasingly falling out of favor with foreign investors, the main reason being… the high national debt

The EY agency, which advises companies on locations where they can open a new branch, maps the number of foreign investments in Belgium every year. This year, those figures paint a bleak picture. Until three years ago, Belgium was among the top five European countries attracting the most foreign investment. Today we are only in eighth place.

The province of Antwerp is doing better. The number of new investments by foreign companies in the province of Antwerp has increased from 43 projects in 2022 to 48 projects in 2023. “But there are two negative developments,” says Tristan Dhondt, one of the people at EY who helps companies choose from a new location. “Of these new investments in Antwerp, none will create more than a hundred jobs. That is highly exceptional. In 2022, there were more than twenty-five foreign investments in Belgium, which created more than a hundred jobs. And even more impressive: in Antwerp in 2023 there were barely nine foreign investment projects that created more than ten jobs.”

“The second negative evolution in the province of Antwerp is that expansion investments by foreign companies have fallen from eighteen to twelve,” says Tristan Dhondt. “In concrete terms, this means that foreign companies that are already here and therefore know the rules in Belgium well, are much less inclined than before to make additional investments.”

How did that happen? “There are several explanations,” says Tristan Dhondt. “I will first give some general ones, which also apply to other countries: interest rates have risen, which means that investments are more expensive anyway. Energy costs are high in Europe. In addition, it has become more attractive to invest in the United States, because many subsidies are available there. There is a tight labor market, making it difficult to find sufficient staff. And then there is inflation, which increases production costs and labor costs. This is even more true in Belgium, due to automatic wage indexation and because wage costs are already very high here.”

“In addition to all those factors, there are also two specific things that stand out for Belgium,” says Tristan Dhondt. “First is the high national debt. No fewer than 29 percent of foreign companies consider this to be one of the three main risks of investing in Belgium, because they fear that the high national debt will lead to higher taxes.” The fears of foreign companies may be further substantiated now that the new European budget rules have been approved. According to these rules, Belgium must save thirty billion euros or levy new taxes over the next four to seven years.

“Another important obstacle is the uncertainty of permits,” says Tristan Dhondt. “23 percent of foreign companies consider this an important barrier to making investments and creating jobs here.”


One of the best-known cases in this context is the construction of the ethane cracker of the Ineos company in the port of Antwerp, which was shut down for almost six months because the environmental permit was annulled. “It is therefore no surprise that the number of expansion investments has decreased,” says Stephan Vanfraechem, managing director of the business organization Voka Antwerpen-Waasland. “Belgian representatives of foreign companies who are already present in the port of Antwerp have to fight much more than before at their foreign headquarters to get additional investments. The slowness with which permits are delivered is an important reason for this. The fact that anyone can simply appeal against a permit and the long duration of that appeal procedure is also a worrying problem.”

Yet Stephan Vanfraechem looks positively to the future. “We have been knocking on that nail for a long time, and I notice that the issue of business permits has now found its way into many election manifestos,” he says. “I therefore expect that there will be a solution to that problem in the next Flemish coalition agreement.”


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