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Belgian economy

Open and competitive
With a surface area of 30,500 km² and a population of 10,446,000, Belgium is one of the smallest Member States in the European Union. However, it has a GDP of EUR 288.09 billion (in 2004) and is one of the ten largest trading nations in the world. It primarily owes its comparably large economic might to its central location and the high productivity of its work force.

A central location and good infrastructure

Belgium has one major advantage: its central location. In the past, this was often a handicap since the great European powers repeatedly came here to battle out their differences. However, in times of peace and open borders, the battlefield of Europe was also the place where trade and industry was able to flourish.
So, Belgium did not just bear witness to the clash of arms and human suffering at Waterloo, Passendale and Bastogne, but was also home to the commercial glory of Brugges and Antwerp and the remarkable worldwide expansion of businesses from the Walloon industrial basins.

Nature saw to it that at the end of the 14th century the course of the Schelde had evolved in such a way that by the 16th century a modest port could develop into the most important trade centre to the north of the Alps. Antwerp is the furthest inland port in north west Europe and has the most active economic zone in Europe as its hinterland. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, it is the fourth largest port in the world and the fastest growing port for container transport out of the entire Hamburg-Le Havre range. In addition to the sea ports of Antwerp, Zeebrugge and Ghent and the large European motorways, railways and waterways, Belgium developed an efficient transport network on its territory allowing it to take full advantage of its central location. As a result, Belgium was able to expand to become a distribution capital and a European bridge for business throughout the whole world.

Sensible infrastructure

Belgium has always invested a great deal in its transport infrastructure. It was the first country in Europe where trains were used and it quickly built up the densest railway network in the world. Transport on the waterways was optimalised by constructing inventive boat lifts such as those on the Canal du Centre which has since been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Over the years, the port of Antwerp acquired large dock yards and locks and currently has the largest lock in the world, the Berendrecht lock.

Belgium is focusing its efforts in a bid to let transport run quickly and continuously further through the country. It has modern airports and quick connections with the high-speed train. As regards goods transport, the country wants to make full use of the advantages offered by combined transport. A number of container ports for inland shipping have recently been built and the port of Antwerp was expanded once again with a tidal container dock - the Deurganck dock - which allows ships to be dealt with even more quickly. The rail infrastructure in the port area and the connections to the port are been extended further.

Economic change

Belgium initially owed a major part of its industrialisation and fast economic growth to the minerals present in the ground in the south of the country. The impetus for the country's strong industrial development had already been provided before independence. So, as early as during the era of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (1815-1830), when the countries currently known as Belgium and the Netherlands together formed one single country, the Société générale was established, which gradually developed into a powerful holding company that controlled a large part of the Belgian economy.

The centre moves from Wallonia to Flanders

Coal mining and heavy industry, which enabled Belgium to become the most industrialised country in Europe after Great Britain, lost their dominant status in the second half of the 20th century. The coal was located deep underground and mining was too expensive in the face of foreign competition. In the middle of the 20th century, Belgium still had 100,000 miners, in 1983 the last Walloon mine closed and 1992 marked the end of the last mine in Limburg. The steel industry also declined sharply during the same period as a result of the European Coal and Steel Community and the associated redevelopment of Europe's steel sector. In Wallonia, which was the base of Belgium's industrial development, large areas are still struggling with economic restructuring. The Walloon government recently launched a large-scale 'Marshall plan' to boost the region's economy.

While all this was taking place, Flanders was moving up in the world. It owed this mainly to its favourable location and the port of Antwerp. The supply of oil and the investments from large foreign companies led to the expansion of the largest concentration of petrochemical activity in the world, after Houston.

American companies also played an important role. After the war they started looking for cheaper product options and after the launch of the European Economic Community, they wanted to take advantage of the additional predicted growth. In Flanders, they found reliable workers who were considerably cheaper than the Walloons.
Flanders was therefore able to catch up with Wallonia in industrial terms. Flanders' GDP, which only represented 44% of Belgian GDP in 1995, rose to 55% after the Golden Sixties.

From industry to services

During this period, Belgium, like other industrialised countries, made a large shift towards the tertiary sector. Currently, almost 75% of the workforce is employed in the services sector and just under 25% is employed in industry. Agriculture represents approximately 1%.

The fact that industry's share in the economy has declined (to approximately 20% of the value added) does not automatically mean that deindustrialisation will continue. In the last 10 years, industrial production has increased in volume almost as quickly as the Belgian economy as a whole. The decline in the share of industry in GDP can be attributed to higher productivity which has led prices to fall. Industry still accounts for 80% of Belgian exports.

Belgian agriculture has developed into a highly competitive sector with one of the highest rates of productivity in Europe. In Flanders, the companies are on average 16.2 ha and mainly concentrate on pig farming and market gardening. In Wallonia, the companies are on average 38.2 ha and agriculture is more extensive. The focus here is on beef and dairy cattle and arable farming.

The perfect 'open economy'

A densely populated but small country which is centrally located in one of the most economically active regions in the world has to have an open economy. In the early Middle Ages, products from what can now be referred to as 'Belgian soil' were already being sold throughout what was then considered to be the whole world. Bruges, followed by Antwerp were places where traders and products from all over the world came together. It was Bruges that gave the world the 'stock market' and in the 16th century, Antwerp started new financial techniques and loaned its capital the world's major powers. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Belgian industrialists, equipped with their machines, railways and large infrastructures, played an important role in developing and opening up large and small countries across the globe.

The age-old openness of the Belgian economy has increased in recent decades. As a result of the significant proportion of international trade in GDP and the substantial income from foreign investment, the country has been called 'the perfect example of an open economy'.

The average value of export and import of goods as a percentage of GDP equates to almost 83%, which is the highest percentage out of all the 25 countries in the European Union. Belgium also holds first place for the percentage of GDP accounted for by foreign direct investment.

Belgium: the largest exporter

Belgium, which accounts for less than 0,2% of the world population and has a market share of 3,4% of exports and 3% of imports, is ranked tenth for international trade in goods. As regards international trade in services, Belgium has a market share of 3,6% and is ranked eighth.

Approximately 20% of Belgians exports is comprised of consumer goods. Intermediate goods account for about 60%. These are mainly machines and equipment, accounting for over 28% of exports, and chemical and allied products accounting for almost 22%.

It can also be seen from export figures that Belgium is a country which assembles cars. Approximately 95% of the 900,000 cars manufactured by Volvo, Opel, Volkswagen and Ford in Belgium are exported. They account for almost 15% of Belgian exports. Plastics account for over 3%, pharmaceutical products and organic chemical products represent about 5% each. Metals (iron and steel, non ferrous metals and processed metal products) make up over 4% and food stuffs constitute almost 9%.

Belgium is the world's largest exporter of diamonds and carpets and is the second largest exporter of plant fibres, chocolate and margarine. It is the world number three for glass exports and ranks fourth for the export of eggs, non alcoholic drinks and cars.

Belgium is the world leader in terms of export per capita and can justifiably call itself the 'world's largest exporter'.

The European dimension

Belgium's position in the international economy and the fact that the country is able to make such good use of its economic advantages is in large part thanks to the position it occupies in the unified European market.
Export to its 'natural partners' and the other EU countries (15 Member States) accounts for approximately 75% of Belgium's total exports. Out of this 75%, 65% goes to the euro zone and 11% to the other EU countries. The European countries outside EU-15 account for 7%. (The 10 new EU Member States accounted for almost 3% of export in 2003 i.e. before their accession). Asia represents over 9% and the US about 5%. The importance of the European dimension is clear from the fact that half of the goods that are processed in the port of Antwerp come from or are destined for other European countries.

There is also the economic effect of the presence of the European and other international organisations. The European organisations account, directly and indirectly, for almost one tenth of the jobs in the Brussels Capital Region. The international organisations and their employees inject a large amount of money into the Belgian economy through their spending. Belgium does therefore not need to be convinced of the benefit of European integration and is eagerly helping to pave the way forward. In the past, Belgian politicians have often played a key role in mapping out the path for European construction and in redefining common policy. As an exporting country, Belgium was also a major partisan of the introduction of the common European currency - the euro. The National Bank of Belgium forms part of the European System of Central Banks and, as such, is involved in defining and implementing monetary policy in the euro zone.

Of course, the liberalisation of the European market did not just provide greater potential for Belgian products, but also increased the likelihood of fierce competition. Belgium has maintained its position and managed to remain competitive, mainly by boosting the productivity of its companies and workers. In Belgian industry, a worker currently produces on average twice as much as a worker in 1980.

The Belgian worker: an important asset

The high productivity of Belgian workers plays a vital role in the good performance of the Belgian economy.
Belgian labour productivity is amongst the highest in the world. Only the US (and the exceptional case of Luxembourg) are ahead of Belgium in the most relevant category (GDP per worker). Belgium is ranked third for productivity per hour worked. In fact, Belgium always features amongst the best regardless of the way in which the quality of workers is measured. Labour productivity is particularly high in industry, construction and finance. Belgian workers also have the lowest rate of absenteeism in the EU.

One of the most important factors after the high level of productivity is the high quality of the Belgian education system which can be seen from international comparative studies, such as the PISA study conducted by the OECD. Approximately one third of people aged between 18 and 24 are in higher education, which is the highest figure in the EU. Two Belgian universities feature in the list of the top 10 best universities in the world (outside the US) compiled by American scientists.

A special kind of SME country

In structural terms, the Belgian business world consists of a series of large companies and a very high number of SMEs. Some Belgian companies employ thousands of people worldwide and the Stella Artois Brewery in Leuven was able to expand into Inbev, the largest brewery group in the world. However, the majority of the large companies belong to foreign groups. Recently, foreign shareholders took over the control of some important Belgian companies and currently, the decision-making centres for two thirds of the top 100 Belgian companies are located abroad.

In addition, the Belgian economy is supported by small and medium-sized enterprises. Approximately 83% of Belgian companies have less than 10 employees and 97% of the companies employ less than 50 people. SMEs account for over 70% of GDP. The majority of Belgian SMEs are family businesses but this does not prevent them from being important players on the international market. Belgian SMEs have turned out to be particularly good niche companies which are often market leaders in their own sectors.

It can be seen from European comparisons how special these small companies are: Belgian SMEs are the most profitable in the EU. Belgium is also the only European country where the profitability of SMEs is considerably higher than that of large companies.

A genuine collective bargaining economy

The Belgians are not partial to harsh confrontation. This is demonstrated in the way that relationships are organised within the economy. Belgium is a genuine collective bargaining economy in which a great deal is regulated by agreements between worker and employer representative organisations. The government acts as mediator. Social dialogue takes place at company, sectoral and national level. In negotiations on collective labour agreements, wage increases are restricted by the Law on Safeguarding Competitiveness (De wet op het concurrentievermogen/La loi de sauvegarde de la competitivité). The law has the task of ensuring that the competitive position of Belgian companies does not suffer in relation to companies in the neighbouring countries.

Belgian companies are brought together in a number of bodies which reflect regional and sectoral divisions. At national level there is the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium (FEB/VBO) and at regional level there is the association of Flemish Companies i.e. the Flemish Economic Union (VOKA), the Union of Walloon Enterprises (UWE) and the Union of Enterprises in Brussels (UEB/VOB).

The level of union membership in Belgium is 60%  which is the highest level after the Scandinavian countries. The unions do not just play a key role in social dialogue but are also responsible for other areas such as the payment of unemployment compensation. There are three major unions: the socialist General Labour Federation of Belgium, the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions and the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions.

The role of the government

As is the case in many European countries, the government plays a relatively large role in the national economy. It ensures that income is redistributed by managing and co-financing the social security system to which the Belgians are very attached. It is regarded as one of the most efficient systems in the world: Belgium has one of the lowest poverty levels.

The role that the government plays in social dialogue is also very important. If employer and worker representative organisations cannot reach an agreement, the government acts as a mediator and, if necessary, takes the plunge. Moreover, it is well aware of the importance of the international context in which Belgian companies are active and the importance of safeguarding competitiveness.

Economic powers of the Regions

Over the last 25 years, Belgium has evolved into a Federal state with a large degree of autonomy for the three Regions (Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia). This has also had consequences for economic powers. The Regions are responsible for the agricultural, energy, employment and economic policies (economic expansion, innovation policy, restructuring policy), foreign trade, public works and public transport. The Federal government is responsible for social security (unemployment, sickness and invalidity, pensions, child benefit) and also has the necessary powers to ensure that the country retains its economic and monetary unity.

Public finances

As regards public finances, Belgium is still suffering the consequences of the anti-cyclical policy pursued by the government in the 1970s. The interest on the debt built up as a result of deficit spending has left the country with a very high level of debt. It continued however to benefit from the trust of the capital markets, primarily since Belgian debt was virtually solely financed by Belgians themselves. Traditionally, they have one of the highest savings rates in the world.

An austere policy and good debt management have since enabled the Belgian government to reorganise its finances. The Maastricht indicators governing inclusion into the European currency union acted as an extra incentive in this respect. The level of debt, which totalled 137.1% of GDP in 1993, has since decreased to 95.8%. The budget has been balanced since 2000 which currently makes Belgium one of the best performing countries within the EU.
The budget surpluses which are planned from 2007 onwards will be put aside in the Silver Fund which will help to cover the financial consequences of the aging of the population. The level of debt will have been reduced to approximately 79% by 2009.

Looking to the future...

Belgium is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of its economy. It wants to continue to keep its favourable position in the future. Research and development are, of course, of vital importance and  Belgium scores highly is this area too.

As regards investment in innovation and research as a percentage of GDP, Belgium scores better than the EU average. It comes sixth after Sweden, Finland, Germany, Denmark and France. An important aspect is that the contribution made by companies in this area is so high. They account for 64% of the investments in research and development which - after Sweden, Finland and Germany - represents the highest percentage in the EU.

Belgium has more inhabitants that are active in the area of research and development that the European average and they are more productive that their colleagues in other countries: Belgium has 929 scientific publications per million inhabitants on average per year, compared to 550 in Japan and 775 in the US. Another important factor is the continued growth of the ICT sector. The proportion accounted for by the ICT sector in the Belgian economy rose from 3.35% in 1995 to 4.27% in 2004. During this period, the sector accounted for 19.5% of the increase in GDP and currently provides 20% of total R&D; efforts.


A federal state
A multicultural society
A potted history
Achieving European integration
Belgian economy
Belgium Unlimited
Belgium at a glance
Belgium at the heart of Europe
Belgium in the European Union
Brussels: home to international organisations
Commitment to increased international cooperation
Invest in Belgium
Landmarks and reference points
Regional diversity and topography
Social security
Studying in Belgium
The Belgians
The monarchy
The port community
The tertiary sector
Three large urban agglomerations
Town and country planning and the environment


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