The Kingdom of Belgium shipped US$466.7 billion worth of goods around the globe in 2018. That dollar amount reflects a -1.2% slowdown since 2014 but an 8.5% gain from 2017 to 2018.
From a continental perspective, roughly three-quarters (76.1%) of Belgian exports by value were delivered to fellow European countries while 10.8% were sold to Asian importers. Belgium shipped another 6.4% worth to North American destinations, with smaller percentages going to Africa (3.5%), Latin America (1.4%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean, and Oceania (0.8%) led by Australia.
Given Belgium’s population of 11.6 million people, its total $466.7 billion in 2018 exports translates to roughly $40,300 for every resident in the west European country.
In macroeconomic terms, Belgium’s total exported goods represent 84.8% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2018 ($550.5 billion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 84.8% for exports to overall GDP in PPP for 2018 compares to 96.1% for 2014, seeming to indicate a relatively decreasing reliance on products sold on international markets for Belgium’s total economic performance. And while this article focuses on exported goods, it is interesting to note that Belgium also provided $123.4 billion worth of exports-related services to global customers for an additional 22.4% of GDP in PPP. Those metrics include a significant amount of re-exporting activity.
Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. Belgium’s unemployment rate was 5.7% at April 2019, down from 6.3% one year earlier according to Trading Economics.
Belgium’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in Belgian global shipments during 2018. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from Belgium.
- Vehicles: US$51.9 billion (11.1% of total exports)
- Pharmaceuticals: $47.5 billion (10.2%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $43.9 billion (9.4%)
- Organic chemicals: $37.7 billion (8.1%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $33.5 billion (7.2%)
- Machinery including computers: $33.1 billion (7.1%)
- Iron, steel: $19.8 billion (4.2%)
- Gems, precious metals: $18.8 billion (4%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $15 billion (3.2%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $13.5 billion (2.9%)
Belgium’s top 10 exports accounted for over two-thirds (67.4%) of the overall value of its global shipments.
Organic chemicals was the fastest-growing top product category, appreciating 30.2% from 2017 to 2018.
In second place was the mineral fuels including oil category, up 22.4% propelled by higher international sales of petroleum oil, gas and coke.
The value of Belgium’s exported iron and steel metals gained 13.9%, followed by the 12.8% improvement for plastics and items made from plastic.
The sole declining category was for optical, technical and medical apparatus, thanks to its -7.7% decrease year over year.
At the more granular four-digit Harmonized Tariff System code level, motor cars (7.3% of total) are Belgium’s number one Belgian export product. In second place were refined petroleum oils (6.8%) followed by drugs and medicines (5.9%), blood fractions including antisera (3.8%) then unmounted diamonds (3.2%).
Overall Belgium posted a $16.6 billion trade surplus for 2018, down by -29.5% from $23.6 billion in black ink one year earlier.
The following types of Belgian product shipments represent positive net exports or a trade balance surplus. Investopedia defines net exports as the value of a country’s total exports minus the value of its total imports. In a nutshell, net exports represent the amount by which foreign spending on a home country’s goods or services exceeds or lags the home country’s spending on foreign goods or services.
- Plastics, plastic articles: US$13.6 billion (Up by 32.9% since 2017)
- Pharmaceuticals: $6.9 billion (Down by -18.2%)
- Iron, steel: $4.8 billion (Up by 7.5%)
- Other chemical goods: $2.4 billion (Up by 45.5%)
- Footwear: $2.2 billion (Up by 8.8%)
- Cereal/milk preparations: $2.2 billion (Up by 12.6%)
- Vegetable/fruit/nut preparations: $2.1 billion (Up by 6%)
- Meat: $2.1 billion (Down by -6.6%)
- Soaps, washing preparations, lubricants, waxes: $1.5 billion (Up by 9.5%)
- Tanning, dyes, paints, varnishes, ink: $1.5 billion (Down by -25.4%)
Belgium has highly positive net exports in the international trade of plastic materials and goods made from plastic. In turn, these cashflows indicate Belgium’s strong competitive advantages under the plastics product category.
Below are exports from Belgium that result in negative net exports or product trade balance deficits. These negative net exports reveal product categories where foreign spending on home country Belgium’s goods trail Belgian importer spending on foreign products.
- Mineral fuels including oil: -US$19.1 billion (Up by 53.7% since 2017)
- Vehicles: -$4.7 billion (Up by 28.8%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: -$3.6 billion (Up by 12%)
- Ores, slag, ash: -$1.9 billion (Down by -4.3%)
- Machinery including computers: -$1.6 billion (Down by -36.7%)
- Cereals: -$1.5 billion (Up by 2.7%)
- Oil seeds: -$1.2 billion (Up by 10.7%)
- Fruits, nuts: -$1.2 billion (Up by 23.2%)
- Furniture, bedding, lighting, signs, prefab buildings: -$1.1 billion (Up by 2%)
- Fish: -$911.7 million (Up by 5.1%)
Belgium has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for mineral fuels-related products, in particular crude oil, petroleum gases and electricity.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate Belgium’s competitive disadvantages in the international energy market, but also represent key opportunities for Belgium to improve its position in the global economy through focused innovations.
Belgian Export Companies
Belgium placed 11 corporations among the Forbes Global 2000. Below is a sample of major Belgian export companies that Forbes ranked:
- Anheuser-Busch InBev (beverages)
- Belgacom (telecommunications services)
- Delhaize Group (food retail)
- Solvay (diversified chemicals)
- UCB (pharmaceuticals)
- Umicore (diversified metals, mining)
According to global trade intelligence firm Zepol, the following smaller companies are also examples of Belgian export companies:
- BBL Shipping Belgium (mechanical shovels, excavators, shovel loaders)
- DHL Danzas Air Ocean Belgium (rubber/plastic molds, plastic boxes/cases, mechanical shovels)
- Fiat Services Sadi Belgium (automobiles)
- TPSA Co Tupperware Belgium (rubber/plastic molds, plastic boxes/cases/crates)
Belgium’s capital city is Brussels.
See also Belgium’s Top 10 Imports, Belgium’s Top Trading Partners and Top EU Export Countries
Forbes Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on March 22, 2019
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on June 28, 2019
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on March 22, 2019
Trade Map, International Trade Centre. Accessed on June 28, 2019
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on June 28, 2019
Wikipedia, List of Companies of Belgium. Accessed on March 22, 2019
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on June 28, 2019
Zepol’s company summary highlights by country. Accessed on March 23, 2016