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The face of Brexit-related investments in Flanders [interview]

No less than GBP 900 million. That’s how much British exports to the EU fell in July 2021 alone, according to the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS). But while British trade with the EU has seen a sharp decline, it’s evident that UK companies still want to do business with Europe. Even more, a rapidly increasing number of British businesses are crossing the Channel to set up activities in Flanders, the northern region of Belgium.

To find out the how and why behind this trend, British television news channel Sky News reached out to Astrid Geeraerts, head of investment at Flanders Investment & Trade’s London office.

Here are some of the main takeaways from the interview.

1. There’s been a 183% jump in British investments in Flanders

Astrid Geeraerts: “Over the first six months of 2021, the number of investment projects initiated by British businesses in Flanders has grown by no less than 183%.

The vast majority of these projects can be directly linked to companies’ efforts to mitigate the impact of Brexit. While the trend can be spotted across many different sectors and industries, there are however specific types of activities that stand out. As such, most new investments by British companies are related to setting up logistics operations in Flanders as well as sales & marketing offices.” 

2. UK firms tend to start small in Flanders but nurture growth

Astrid Geeraerts: “When crossing the Channel, most British companies typically employ a handful of people – say a team of four to five – in Flanders. However, in the months and years that follow, many of them use that presence as a springboard to grow their operations and see their European business expand. As such, setting up a base in Flanders is usually the first step for a larger operation later down the line, with local workforces growing to around 60 employees.”

3. British businesses put a positive spin on Brexit-related investments

Astrid Geeraerts: “Currently, UK companies in different sectors are facing a major dilemma due to Brexit. They either absorb the costs of the new customs regulations without charging their clients extra, or they pass these costs on to their clients. To put it bluntly: they either lose income or risk losing clients. The only real solution is to guarantee direct access to the European Single Market – by getting a VAT number in an EU member state, by hiring a partner company to handle your distribution on the continent, or by setting up your business in the EU if you can.”

“However, rather than seeing this as something unfortunate, we’ve noticed that British companies adopt a positive attitude and look at it as an opportunity. It’s also not about taking their business away from the UK, but rather about sorting out a solution to maintain the success of their UK business. All while still maintaining access to the European market, and then using that as a springboard for further expansion.”

4. UK investors get close to their European customers

Astrid Geeraerts: “When choosing to set up a base on the continent, British companies carefully weigh their options. But it mainly boils down to the question: where are my customers located and from where can I reach them optimally? That’s often when Flanders comes on their radar. Thanks to our region’s central location and dense transport infrastructure, companies can easily reach a great variety of customers across different territories. These include the major economies surrounding Flanders – such as France and Germany – as well as Central European markets.”

5. A hands-on approach wins the day

Astrid Geeraerts: “While it’s true that setting up a business abroad may seem, at first sight, as much of a hassle as dealing with new customs regulations, it doesn’t have to be! Especially when organizations like Flanders Investment & Trade have your back and offer a lot of hands-on advice, free of charge. Often, when businesses reach out to us, they let us know how relieved they are to have someone who helps them figure out what to do when and how to get there quickly. And that’s what it’s all about: responding fast to the current socio-economic climate to strengthen businesses’ futures on both sides of the Channel.”

Find your new entry point to the EU post-Brexit

Are you a UK company looking to take your business abroad ? FIT is here to help! From grants and funding to building your network: this handy guide shows you how to navigate the post-Brexit landscape and maximise your international efforts.

Reported by
Flanders Investment & Trade
29 October 2021

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