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Executive Summary

The Internationalisation Monitor describes trends in globalisation and their consequences for the Dutch economy and society. It is published three times per year as part of the Globalisation research agenda of Statistics Netherlands (CBS), commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In this edition of the Internationalisation Monitor, we take a look at one of our closest neighbours: Belgium. We know our southern neighbours for their culinary delights, including potato fries, Trappist beers and chocolates, but also for Brussels, the capital of the European Union, and for the port of Antwerp, a major supply point for Europe. While Belgium’s internal market is relatively small, just like the Netherlands it has an open economy with strong ties to other countries in the form of trade and inward and outward investment. And just as in the Netherlands, deindustrialisation in Belgium was accompanied by significant growth in the service sector, and today the Belgian economy is driven by services, with Brussels playing an important role as a business and administrative centre. Belgium’s GDP is just over half the size of the Netherlands’ GDP, but its per capita GDP is comparable to that of the Netherlands.

How far do these apparent similarities between Belgium and the Netherlands extend? Belgium and the Netherlands share a border and (in the northern half of Belgium, at least) the same language. Membership of the EU facilitates trade and so it is not surprising that Dutch SMEs often make their first international move into Belgium. Belgium is also an important destination for more established Dutch exporters. However, Dutch firms crossing the southern border will also notice certain differences between Belgium and the Netherlands. And since Belgium is a federal state with various tiers of government with different powers, firms trading in different parts of Belgium may also face regulatory differences within the country.

Listed below are some of the main findings presented in the chapters of this edition:

Chapter 1: Profile of Belgium

  • Belgium’s economy ranked 25th in the world in 2022 with a GDP of €554.1 billion, 7 places behind the Dutch economy with a GDP of €958.6 billion.
  • Belgium’s GDP per capita of €47.4 thousand was comparable to the Netherlands’ GDP per capita of €54.2 thousand in 2022.
  • The Brussels Capital Region has the highest GDP per capita in the country (€75 thousand), followed by the Flemish region (€45 thousand) and the Walloon region (€32 thousand). Brussels’ relatively high GDP per capita is partly due to the large number of people who commute to this region to work.
  • Belgium has the fifth largest national debt within the European Union. Expressed as a percentage of its GDP, Belgium has one of the highest debt ratios in Europe.
  • Belgian GDP has been less volatile over time than the Dutch GDP, mainly due to differences in domestic spending and related factors such as the average level of savings, investments and mortgage debt.
  • Belgium ranked 14th in the world in terms of goods exports in 2022 at €440 billion, 10 spots behind the Netherlands. Belgium’s goods exports per capita (€38 thousand) are at a similar level to the Netherlands (€41 thousand).
  • Belgium exported €130 billion in services in 2022, ranking 13th in global services trade, five spots behind the Netherlands. At €11 thousand, Belgium’s per capita service exports are as high as those of the Netherlands and twice as high as those of its other neighbours, Germany and France.
  • In 2022, Belgian foreign direct investment positions totalled €697 billion. This placed Belgium in 11th place in terms of outward investments. The Netherlands occupies second place worldwide.
  • In 2022, Belgium ranked 13th in terms of inward foreign direct investment (positions), with €544 billion in foreign direct investments (equivalent to 92% of GDP).
  • In 2022, the Netherlands was both the most important destination for Belgian investment and the largest investor in Belgium. The United States and the United Kingdom are the Netherlands’ largest investment partners. This picture has remained unchanged compared to previous years.
  • In 2021, of all the firms under foreign control in the Netherlands (16 thousand), more than 11% (i.e. 1,720 firms) were under Belgian control. That share was 9% in 2014.
  • Belgium ranked 23rd of the 132 economies featured in the Global Innovation Index, while the Netherlands ranked 7th.
  • In 2021 Belgium spent 3.43% of its GDP on research and development, surpassing Sweden’s expenditure and ranking 4th in the world. With expenditure of 2.31% of its GDP on R&D, the Netherlands ranked 15th.
  • With nearly 6,600 researchers working in R&D per million inhabitants in 2021, Belgium ranks 8th in the world in terms of employment in R&D. The Netherlands ranks 10th with nearly 6,100 researchers in R&D per million people.
  • Within the EU, Belgium lags behind on digitalisation. Among the 27 EU member states, Belgium ranked 16th on the Digital Economy and Society Index in 2022. This relatively low ranking was partly due to the slow rollout of fibre optic networks in the country. The Netherlands ranked third in the index.
  • Belgium (21st) and the Netherlands (11th) both rank among the top 25 countries with the highest Environmental Performance Index score. This index compares and ranks 180 countries based on their efforts to protect the environment, improve ecosystem vitality and mitigate climate change.

Chapter 2: Goods trade, transport and characteristics of exporters

  • The Netherlands exported €60.0 billion worth of goods to Belgium in the first three quarters of 2023. This accounted for 11.9% of total goods exports. Only Germany received more Dutch goods than Belgium, with France in third place.
  • Mineral fuels dominate Dutch exports to Belgium with a 30% share, followed by manufactured goods (such as medical instruments) and chemical products (such as medicines and plastics).
  • The Netherlands imported €47.5 billion worth of goods from Belgium in the first three quarters of 2023. This accounted for 10.2% of goods imported into the Netherlands, making Belgium the third largest exporter of goods to the Netherlands. Again, Germany exported the most goods to the Netherlands, followed by the US and then Belgium.
  • The range of goods imported into the Netherlands from Belgium is diverse. Chemical products (including medicaments) were the most important with 23% of total imports, followed by manufactured goods and mineral fuels (including refined petroleum products).
  • Firms in the Netherlands exporting goods to Belgium are mainly smaller enterprises, the majority of which have been in existence for 10 years or more. More than half of Dutch exporters to Belgium in 2022 were active in the trade sector, such as wholesale and trade intermediation.
  • In 2022, Belgium was the second most important country of origin and destination for goods crossing the Dutch border, after Germany. More goods went from the Netherlands to Belgium than the other way round. Transport between the two countries was mainly by inland waterway followed by road transport.
  • The Netherlands has more sea transport than Belgium, while in Belgium the transport of goods relies more on road transport, in relative terms.
  • In 2022, 13.9% of all Belgian goods exports were destined for the Netherlands. This made the Netherlands the second most important export destination for Belgium, preceded only by Germany. Belgium was also the second largest export partner for the Netherlands in 2022.
  • Belgium’s export basket in 2022 consisted mainly of mineral fuels, pharmaceuticals, and passenger cars and car parts. Mineral fuels and passenger cars were mainly destined for the European market, while the US was the main receiver of Belgian pharmaceutical exports.
  • A total of 18.7% of goods imported into Belgium came from the Netherlands in 2022, making Belgium the country most dependent on goods originating from the Netherlands. Conversely, for the Netherlands, Belgium ranked fourth as a country of origin for imported goods.
  • The three main product groups imported into Belgium in 2022 were mineral fuels, pharmaceuticals, and passenger cars and car parts. Mineral fuels came mainly from the Netherlands and the UK. Germany was Belgium’s main supplier of automobiles and auto parts in 2022; the Netherlands ranked fourth.

Chapter 3: International trade in services

  • The Netherlands and Belgium share many cultural values, linguistic ties, and a significant land border. Relations between the two countries have therefore always been strong and remain so. Since both countries have undergone a transition towards a service-oriented economy and both are in the top 15 service traders in the world, their close relationship is also reflected in bilateral trade in services.
  • In the first three quarters of 2023, Dutch service exports to Belgium amounted to €13.0 billion, making Belgium the sixth most important recipient of Dutch service exports. These exports consisted mainly of business services (€4.4 billion) and transportation services (€3.0 billion). The Netherlands exported more services to Germany, the US, the UK, France and Switzerland than it did to Belgium.
  • The Netherlands imported €14.6 billion in services from Belgium, also making the Netherlands the sixth most important importer of services from Belgium in the first three quarters of 2023. The US, Germany, the UK, Ireland, and France exported more services to the Netherlands than Belgium did. Business services (€4.1 billion) and transportation services (€4.1 billion) are Belgium’s main service exports to the Netherlands and make up 60.3% of the total.
  • There were 97 thousand firms in the Netherlands trading services with Belgium in 2021, an increase of 20% compared to 2015.
  • Independent SMEs make up the largest share of firms trading services with Belgium. Belgium is a close neighbour, a fellow member of the EU, and in part of the country the same language is spoken as in the Netherlands. SMEs starting to export therefore often choose Belgium to make their first international move.
  • Firms that have been established for at least 10 years make up the largest group of firms in the Netherlands trading services with Belgium. Patience and a relationship of trust are important factors when doing business with Belgium.
  • The majority of firms trading services with Belgium were active in the wholesale and retail trade, numbering over 29 thousand firms. At just under 21 thousand firms, firms in the Netherlands active in specialised business services also often actively trade services in Belgium.
  • Firms in the Netherlands trading services with Belgium are highly concentrated in border areas and are the most prevalent in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.
  • In 2022, Belgium’s most important partner for its exports and imports of services is the Netherlands. Belgium’s next most important partners are France, the US, Germany, and the UK.
  • In 2022, Belgium’s worldwide services trade consisted of at least 50% business services and transportation services in both its imports and exports. This resembles the export and import basket of the Netherlands. The difference is that financial services play a more important role in Belgium’s service imports (5.9% versus 4.3%). Compensation for intellectual property is substantially lower in both exports and imports (3.0% and 2.6%) than the Netherlands (14.4% and 15.5%).

Chapter 4: The interdependence of the Netherlands with Belgium in global value chains

  • In 2022, the value added generated by the Dutch economy through exports of goods and services to Belgium was €28.5 billion, accounting for 3.3% of the Netherlands’ GDP. Belgium is the Netherlands’ third largest export partner in terms of export earnings.
  • At nearly €16 billion, the Netherlands earned the most from exports of domestically produced goods. Earnings from services exports amounted to €8.1 billion. Re-exports to Belgium accounted for €4.5 billion.
  • In 2022, the wholesale and retail trade sector earned the most from exports to Belgium, followed by specialised business services and the chemical industry.
  • In 2022, 205 thousand full-time equivalent jobs were related to exports to Belgium, accounting for 8% of all export-induced employment and 2.5% of all employment in the Netherlands.
  • According to calculations based on OECD figures, in 2020 the Netherlands earned €2.1 billion from indirect exports to Belgium. These are earnings from exports to Belgium through other trading partners in which Dutch intermediate goods and supporting services are further processed and used in the exports of these other trading partners, with Belgium as the final destination.
  • Most value added that is generated for the Netherlands through indirect exports to Belgium came from supplying goods and services to European countries. Most indirect value-added exports were generated via Ireland (36.2%), followed by France (14.2%) and Germany (13.2%).
  • A total of €15.5 billion in Dutch export earnings from trade with Belgium is due to final consumption and investment expenditure in Belgium, with the manufacturing as the highest-earning sector, followed by wholesale and retail trade and specialised business services.
  • In 2022, the Netherlands imported €60.8 billion worth of goods and €10.3 billion worth of services from Belgium. Around 46% of the goods and services imported from Belgium were due for further processing, with a majority of these intermediate imports consisting of goods (€24.4 billion).
  • In terms of import dependence on goods and services from Belgium, the pharmaceutical industry in the Netherlands was the most reliant on imports of goods from Belgium: 32% of this industry’s imports of goods were sourced from Belgium in 2022. Postal and courier services were most dependent on Belgium for the imports of services, with 20% of imports of services by this sector coming from Belgium.
  • In 2020, Belgium earned €16.3 billion from exports of goods and services to the Netherlands, both directly (€15.2 billion) and indirectly (€1.1 billion) through global value chains. That is about 10% of Belgium’s total export earnings and €10 billion less than the Netherlands earned from exports to Belgium in that same year.
  • In 2020, €10.4 billion of Belgian value-added exports that arrived in the Netherlands were for Dutch final consumption and investment expenditures. The remaining €5.9 billion of Belgian value-added exports to the Netherlands were further processed in the Netherlands before being exported elsewhere, particularly to Germany (13.3%), France (9.4%) and the US (8.6%).

Chapter 5: The Dutch and Belgian labour market; similarities, differences and interdependencies

  • Gross labour participation (15 to 64 years) in the Netherlands was higher than in Belgium in 2022. It was also more evenly distributed across Dutch regions than across the regions of Belgium.
  • Among persons aged 15 to 64 years in Belgium, labour participation in the Flemish Region was highest at 73.8%. In the Walloon Region it was 65.5% and the Brussels Capital Region 67.7%. Differences in labour participation between the Netherlands and Belgium are mainly concentrated in the youngest age groups.
  • In the Netherlands, 81.8% of persons aged 15 to 64 years were in paid work in 2022. In Belgium that share was 66.5%. In the Netherlands, persons aged 15 to 64 years were more likely to work part-time or be in a temporary employment compared to in Belgium, and in particular the share of working students was higher.
  • The unemployment rate (as a percentage of the labour force) in the Netherlands was lower than in Belgium in the period 2013–2022. In 2022, 3.5% of the Dutch labour force aged 15 to 64 was unemployed, compared to 5.6% in Belgium. Unemployment in the Flemish Region was the lowest, at 3.2%. It was higher in the Brussels Capital Region and the Walloon Region, at 11.5% and 8.4% respectively.
  • Belgians were the 13th largest group of non-Dutch people living in the Netherlands on 1 January 2023, at over 39 thousand people.
  • The number of Belgians settling in the Netherlands has been rising since the 2010s, partly due to the increasing presence of Belgian multinationals in the Netherlands, relatively cheap housing in the Dutch border area near Antwerp, and Belgians studying at Dutch universities.
  • The largest concentrations of Belgian residents are found in the regions bordering Belgium, the large cities in the west of the country (the Randstad) and in student cities.
  • 53% of the Belgians living in the Netherlands are females.
  • In 2022, almost 30 thousand Belgians worked in the Netherlands, of whom 54.5% were male.
  • Belgians working in the Netherlands are relatively young: 40 years old on average. Dutch workers have a mean age of 43 years.
  • Belgian workers in the Netherlands are more likely to work in manufacturing (15%) than Dutch workers (less than 10%). The largest share of Belgian workers in the Netherlands are employed in the care and healthcare sector: 16%.
  • In 2022, the average gross hourly wage of Belgians working in the Netherlands was €36. Dutch workers earned €29 per hour on average.
  • In 2021, over 42 thousand people commuted into the Netherlands from Belgium in order to work, roughly the same number as in 2017. Of these cross-border commuters, the majority were of Dutch nationality (56%) and 36% were of Belgian nationality. Cross-border commuters with Belgian nationality make up approximately half of Belgian workers in the Netherlands.
  • The number of people commuting into Belgium from the Netherlands was approximately 12 thousand in 2021. This number has decreased slightly since 2017. Of these, approximately half were of Dutch nationality and more than 40% of Belgian nationality.
  • The regions of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and Zuid-Limburg had the largest share of workers living in Belgium but working in the Netherlands (over 4% in 2021). Other areas with relatively high numbers of cross-border commuters from Belgium are southeast Noord-Brabant, central Limburg, west Noord-Brabant and central Noord-Brabant, all of which border Belgium.
  • In Belgium, the district of Eeklo close to the Dutch border receives the largest share of cross-border commuters from the Netherlands (more than 2% in 2021). The districts of Tongeren, Sint-Niklaas and Maaseik in Belgian Limburg also have shares of incoming cross-border commuters above 1%.
  • Cross-border commuters from Belgium are more likely to be employed in the Dutch manufacturing. They are less likely to work in the Dutch government, healthcare and cultural sectors.
  • The picture is similar among cross-border commuters from the Netherlands who work in Belgium. They are more likely to work in Belgian manufacturing. Cross-border commuters from Belgium to the Netherlands are more likely to work in the Dutch healthcare and education sectors than cross-border commuters to Belgium.


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