Based on the average exchange rate for 2020, Belgium uses the euro which appreciated by 3.1% against the US dollar since 2016 and increased by 2% from 2019 to 2020. The stronger EU currency in 2020 made Belgium’s exports paid for in weaker US dollars relatively more expensive for international buyers.
The latest available country-specific data shows that 74.9% of products exported from Belgium were bought by importers in: Germany (17.4% of the global total), France (13.7%), Netherlands (11.5%), United Kingdom (7.7%), United States (7%), Italy (5.1%), Spain (3%), Poland (2.4%), China (2.3%), Sweden (1.8%), Luxembourg (1.5%) and Turkey (1.4%).
From a continental perspective, over three-quarters (75.6%) of Belgium’s exports by value were delivered to fellow European countries while 10.7% were sold to importers in Asia. Belgium shipped another 8.3% worth of goods to North America. Smaller percentages went to Africa (3%), Latin America excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean (1.5%) then Oceania led by Australia and New Zealand (0.6%).
Given Belgium’s population of 11.6 million people, its total $419.9 billion in 2020 exports translates to roughly $36,200 for every resident in the west European country.
Belgium’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in Belgian global shipments during 2020. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from Belgium.
- Pharmaceuticals: US$61.3 billion (14.6% of total exports)
- Vehicles: $50.2 billion (11.9%)
- Machinery including computers: $29.6 billion (7%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $27.5 billion (6.5%)
- Organic chemicals: $26.6 billion (6.3%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $24.6 billion (5.9%)
- Gems, precious metals: $15.7 billion (3.7%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $15.7 billion (3.7%)
- Iron, steel: $13.7 billion (3.3%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $12.5 billion (3%)
Belgium’s top 10 exports accounted for roughly two-thirds (66%) of the overall value of its global shipments.
Two top product categories increased from 2019 to 2020 namely pharmaceuticals (up 16.4%) and electrical machinery and equipment (up 1.2%).
The leading decliner among Belgium’s top 10 export categories was mineral fuels including oil: thanks to a -32.9% drop year over year.
At the more granular four-digit Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) code level, Belgium’s most valuable exported products were cars (8% of total), medication mixes in dosage (7.3%), blood fractions including antisera (6.7%), processed petroleum oils (4.4%), unmounted and unset diamonds (2%), heterocyclics and nucleic acids (also 2%), automobile parts or accessories (1.6%), electro-medical equipment including xrays (1.3%), ethylene polymers (1.2%) then platinum (1%).
Overall Belgium posted an $24.1 billion trade surplus for 2020, up by 28.9% from $18.7 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$10.4 billion (Down by -7.9% since 2019)
- Pharmaceuticals: $9.9 billion (Up by 37%)
- Iron, steel: $4.1 billion (Down by -18.3%)
- Footwear: $2.6 billion (Up by 54.5%)
- Vegetable/fruit/nut preparations: $2.2 billion (Down by -12.1%)
- Cereal/milk preparations: $2 billion (Down by -2.1%)
- Other chemical goods: $2 billion (Down by -24.5%)
- Meat: $1.7 billion (Down by -7.1%)
- Organic chemicals: $1.6 billion (Up by 146%)
- Soaps, washing preparations, lubricants, waxes: $1.5 billion (Down by -4.8%)
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$8.6 billion (Down by -39.8% since 2019)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: -$7.4 billion (Up by 7.6%)
- Machinery including computers: -$2 billion (Down by -10.7%)
- Cereals: -$1.6 billion (Down by -1.3%)
- Ores, slag, ash: -$1.4 billion (Down by -2.7%)
- Furniture, bedding, lighting, signs, prefabricated buildings: -$1.2 billion (Down by -4.7%)
- Fruits, nuts: -$1.2 billion (Up by 23%)
- Oil seeds: -$1 billion (Down by -8.9%)
- Fish: -$813.2 million (Down by -8.4%)
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$709.9 million (Down by -9.4%)
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)
In macroeconomic terms, Belgium’s total exported goods represent 72.9% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2020 ($575.8 billion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 72.9% for exports to overall GDP in PPP for 2020 compares to 78.3% for 2019 Those percentages suggest a relatively decreasing reliance on products sold on international markets for Belgium’s total economic performance albeit based on a short timeframe. Also note that Belgium’s export 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 5.6% at January 2021, up from 5% one year earlier according to Trading Economics.
Belgium’s capital city is Brussels.
See also Belgium’s Top 10 Imports, Belgium’s Top Trading Partners and Top EU Export Countries
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook Country Profiles, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on March 30, 2021
Forbes Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on March 30, 2021
International Monetary Fund, Exchange Rates selected indicators (National Currency per U.S. dollar, period average). Accessed on March 30, 2021
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on March 30, 2021
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on March 30, 2021
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on March 30, 2021
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on March 30, 2021
Wikipedia, List of Companies of Belgium. Accessed on March 30, 2021
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on March 30, 2021
Zepol’s company summary highlights by country. Accessed on March 30, 2021