Q: What kind of economic impact might Brexit have on Belgium?
A: There are some studies about the impact on Belgium and these studies suggest it will be negative. There is very significant trade between Belgium and the UK: we are the fourth largest exporter to the UK and the UK is the seventh largest exporter to Belgium. A study by ING bank said Brexit will reduce Belgian GDP by 0.5%. That’s higher than the European average because the European average [of decrease in GDP due to Brexit] is calculated to be 0.3%. That means in absolute figures there will be a negative impact of €2.1bn in 2017. We are very worried because there will be a period of instability, and that’s bad for the economy.
Q: Have you seen an impact on the Belgian economy and FDI from the March 2016 terrorist attacks? Do you think security fears might make investors nervous, and how are you tackling that?
A: First of all we have invested €400m to improve our security. That means for the moment there are more than 1000 soldiers protecting embassies and other important places. Second, we have been investing a lot of money in improving our intelligence services. Also policing has been reinforced. We want to show that the Belgian government is doing all we can to provide a secure environment. After the attack there was a period of uncertainty when investors were a little afraid of coming to Belgium but I have the impression that now we are back in business and the situation is like it was before March 22. There are a lot of exciting possibilities for investing in Belgium today.
Q: In terms of FDI, what are the priorities at the moment?
A: We have very important ports – Antwerp and also Ghent and Bruges – and for those the chemical cluster is crucial. We want to encourage these companies to stay in Belgium. There was a period of pressure because of the situation of shale gas in US affecting energy prices and so on, but that’s more or less under control. The pharmaceutical sector is also important. We have very important research institutions. One is world-leading in nanotechnology, others are specialised in biotech. These are two technologies that are meeting each other. We hope that biotech and nanotechnology can have a bright future in Belgium.
We are working to stimulate our SMEs to be innovative. We have an initiative, the Vanguard Initiative, to stimulate the frontrunners in the field of innovation. We started because everyone is talking about innovation, but what do they mean by innovation? We have tried to be more specific and to say you must focus on smart specialisation. To create clusters we started with five European regions that were regions of innovation, now we are at more than 50 regions where we have some smart specialisation dynamism.
Q: What do you see as Belgium’s particular advantages for attracting FDI? What makes it unique in a European context?
A: First of all is our location. That’s a gift from God. We are in the middle of Europe and when you want to conquer the European market, Belgium is a unique place. Second, our people: they are highly skilled workers, they speak a lot of languages, we have very good universities and schools. Our school system is one of the best in the world. Third, we have a tax policy aimed at lowering labour costs. We are still improving our policy to make it interesting to invest in Belgium and to encourage not only multinationals but also SMEs to come to Belgium, while also getting SMEs in Belgium to go international. It’s a very open economy. It’s easy to come to Belgium.