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Coronavirus shrinks Flanders’ exports by 8% in 2020

Brussels, 30 March 2021  

According to figures published today by Flanders Investment & Trade based on data from the National Bank of Belgium (INR-NBB), the value of goods exported from Flanders amounted to 298 billion euros in 2020, or 8.1% less than the previous year. Imports into Flanders also decreased by 10.01 compared to 2019, reaching 281.1 billion euros. 

Since 2013, Flanders has exported more than it imports. In 2019 due to trade conflicts and protectionist measures, there was a decrease in both exports (-1.5%) and imports for the first time. The global COVID-19 crisis caused a further decrease in 2020. The 8.1% drop in Flanders’ exports is the strongest drop since 2009, when exports decreased by 17%, making 2009 Flanders’ worst export year ever.  

 From March 2020 onwards, world trade slowed to a trickle and the first indication of a negative trend in Flanders’ export figures became apparent. Specifically, there was a 1.6% decline in exports in the 1st quarter. Particularly weak export figures in April and May caused the loss to peak in the 2nd quarter at -21.4%. In the 3rd quarter, export losses were more limited at -8.8%, and export figures even rebounded slightly in the 4th quarter. At 79.4 billion euros, exports fell barely 0.4% compared to the 4th quarter of 2019. 

Brexit stockpiling jacks up final months of 2020 

Anticipating a hard Brexit and accompanying import tariffs and customs formalities, importers on the British side started stockpiling. As a result, our exports to the UK experienced a growth spurt of +30.2% in November and +42.6% in December. The combined 1.34 billion euros of additional exports to the UK during these months somewhat tempered total annual losses, which only fell by -6.48%. 

Accounting for 8% of Flanders’ total exports, the UK remains a key market. Nevertheless, the UK recorded the fifth-largest export value loss of the top 50 export markets in 2020. Annual exports clocked in at 24.21 billion euros, a decrease of 6.48%, or 1.7 billion euros less than in 2019. The biggest hits were in 5 key sectors: automotive (-10.2%), pharmaceuticals (-25.9%), plastics (-13.8%), petroleum products and mineral fuels (-18.4%), and machinery and mechanics (-7.83%). 

Flanders’ export losses fall in European middle ground 

Eurostat figures for 2020 place Flanders near the EU export average (-8.23%) with an 8.07% drop in annual exports in 2020. Among the major EU exporters, only the Netherlands saw its exports fall less (-6.71%). The annual exports of Germany (-9.25%), Italy (-9.74%), Spain (-10.03%) and France (-16.28%), on the other hand, declined more. Within Europe, only Ireland experienced an increase in exports, which grew by 3.66%. Pharma and immunological products, organic chemistry and ICT components drove Ireland’s exceptional export growth. 


Pharma rises, fuel is biggest loser  

Annual exports of chemicals and pharmaceuticals increased by 3.5%, the largest – and almost only – annual gain of all sectors. Chemicals and pharma remained preeminent export icons of Flanders in 2020 as well, with 75.2 billion euros in foreign sales representing a 25.2% share of Flanders’ total exports. Pharmaceuticals – medicines and vaccines – accounted for most of the increase in annual exports at 23.6% or 6.4 billion euros. 

In 2nd place was transport equipment, accounting for 37.0 billion euros – 12.4% of all annual exports from Flanders, after a solid decline (-16.6%) in 2020. Our 3rd-largest export sector, machinery, mechanics and electr(on)ics equipment, with an 11.3% export share, experienced a loss of 5.9% in 2020.  

Significantly lower volumes of mineral products were exported in 2020, a drop of 9.6 billion euros or an annual decline of 31%. These products include mainly mineral fuels (crude oil, natural gas, and distillates), of which exports dropped by 9.5 billion euros (-32.5%). Reduced industrial consumption and price collapse are at the root of this trend.  

EU remains the most important trading partner 

Flanders-based exporters obtain the largest portion of their turnover, almost two-thirds, within the euro zone. Even after the 9.34% decrease in Flanders’ intra-EU exports, the EU-27 remains our most important export area, accounting for 63% of our exports. Flanders exported 43% of its total to its 4 closest EU neighbors (Germany (-12%), France (-8.7%), the Netherlands (-13.7%), and Luxembourg (-16%). 

To the other major EU markets within the top 10 export destinations, exports recorded stronger figures: in Italy (-5.3%) and Spain (-5.9%), Flanders-based companies held their ground reasonably well. In Poland (-2.4%) the loss was even smaller and in Sweden, there was even a slight increase (+2.8%). 

European markets outside the EU –  including  the UK, as of February 2020 – received 13.21% of the total exports of Flanders in 2020. The country group purchased a total of 2.6 billion euros less of goods from Flanders (-6.3%). 

Lower sales in Asian markets 

Exports from Flanders presented slightly weaker results in Asia in 2020 (-8.4%), despite a significant increase in exports to China (overall increase of 22.7%, stronger increase in vaccines, medicines and copper products). 

Export to the US is growing   

As it was in 2019, America was the outlier in 2020, accounting for an average export increase of 5.3%. Exports to North America (+6.8%) increased the most. Annual exports of Flanders to the US grew by 9.5%, or a whopping 1.6 billion euros, compared to 2019. Since the beginning of 2020, a steady flow of vaccines has been exported to the US. Sales to South America (+2.8%) also went up.  

Flanders accounted for 81% of Belgium’s goods exports, the same level as in 2019. Wallonia (-7.1 in exports) contributed 16.1% to national exports. Brussels (-8.3% in exports) accounted for the remaining 2.7%. 

Trade surplus rises to record levels 

Because imports into Flanders fell slightly more sharply in 2020 (-10%) than exports (-8%), the trade balance tilted significantly more in our favor at 17.3 billion euros: over 40% more than in 2019.  


The reduction in exports due to the corona crisis and the accompanying loss of sales is felt hard by many Flanders-based exporters, but is less drastic than feared. Many companies from Flanders have taken advantage of opportunities, among other things due to the multiple demand for specific – often innovative and high-tech – products. As a result, exporters are emerging from the crisis stronger and often more rapidly digitized. To give starting exporters the confidence to take their chances in these difficult circumstances, FIT supports them financially through the Internationalization Starters Package. In this way, together we are building sustainably for the recovery and prosperity of the economy of Flanders.

- Claire Tillekaerts, CEO of FIT

Export records are, of course, not a goal in themselves. But our export figures do reflect the strength of innovative entrepreneurship and Flanders' unique logistical position and expertise. We should be proud of that. For many international entrepreneurs, 2020 was a tough year. This confirms the ambition of the government of Flanders to continue to strive for a good climate for international entrepreneurship. Doing so will enable our entrepreneurs to reap the benefits of Flanders' strong international position.

- Minister-President of the Government of Flanders Jan Jambon

Press contact Flanders Investment & Trade 

Tine Van Valckenborgh 
M. +32 499 24 60 93 

30 March 2021