Two countries, numerous strengths: industry experts shed light on what distinguishes the Netherlands and Belgium – and what sets them apart from Germany. The topic of port cooperation automatically appears on the agenda.
If you examine Europe from a maritime perspective, the Netherlands and Belgium are the first countries you think of. For Torsten Pauly, Director for Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg at Germany Trade & Invest (GTAI), this is hardly surprising. “For centuries, both countries have been important logistics hubs for Europe, in general, and for Germany, in particular. In Rotterdam and Antwerp, they also have the continent’s two largest ports.”
In this context, the Dutch economy is primarily shaped by the service and industrial sectors. The country is also one of the largest agricultural exporters in the world and can demonstrate further success with fishing. In neighbouring Belgium, on the other hand, the refinery, chemical, pharmaceutical, automotive and heavy industries are the main pillars of the economy. “With these multi-faceted key players behind them,” Pauly summarises, “both countries have extremely open economies with higher import and export ratios than Germany.”
According to GTAI, the Netherlands imported a total of 522 billion euros’ worth of goods in 2020 and exported 590 billion euros’ worth. However, it must be acknowledged that more than 40 per cent of exports are transit goods and are merely transported through the Netherlands to their destination countries. Germany’s share of Dutch imports in 2020 was 15.1 per cent, with an export share of as much as 23.4 per cent. Belgium’s foreign trade in 2020 comprised imports worth 348 billion euros and exports worth 370 billion euros, with Germany accounting for 13.8 per cent of all imports and 17.5 per cent of all exports. “Germany has traditionally been the most significant trading partner for both countries. Firstly, figures for 2020 demonstrate their economic strength, but, on the other, they show a downward trend compared to the previous year due to the pandemic-related recession and the disruption of global supply chains. Now that a very strong economic recovery has set in, both the Netherlands and Belgium expect significant regrowth in 2021 and 2022,” Pauly predicts.* Conversely, both nations are also significant trade contacts for Germany – while the Netherlands is Germany’s second most significant foreign trade partner after China, the Belgians still manage to achieve eleventh place in this ranking.
* When this statement was made, final trade figures for the Netherlands and Belgium were not yet available.
Different starting positions
In the course of the competition between the western ports in the Netherlands and Belgium, on one hand, and the northern ports in Germany, on the other, many are considering how each competitive situation can be improved. Among other things, port cooperation is being discussed. For example, the largest terminal operators in the northern German ports, HHLA and EUROGATE, are currently investigating whether the container terminals in Hamburg, Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven could be operated jointly in future, and how this might work. “The aim is to improve the overall attractiveness of the German seaports and to prevent shipowners from relocating liner services to Antwerp, Rotterdam or even Gdańsk,” explains Berthold Bose, head of the Hamburg regional district at the Verdi services trade union, to Welt am Sonntag. However, when asked by LOGISTICS PILOT, neither HHLA nor EUROGATE wished to comment on the current status of these exploratory discussions, “so as not to jeopardise their potential progress”.
“Port cooperation can be beneficial because size is an important competitive factor,” explains Mikkel E. Andersen, Managing Director of EUROGATE Container Terminals in Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven. “We have to remain productive and, above all, agile. The keywords here, besides hard work, are digitalisation and automation.
If we don’t increase the level of automation in our operations, we won’t be able to remain competitive in the long term. In Rotterdam, several terminals already operate with a high degree of automation.” Andersen also indicated the different starting points between the western and northern ports. “The ports in the Netherlands and Belgium are considered nationally, not on a regional level. When it comes to the development in Rotterdam, for example, the Netherlands as a whole is behind it. Its importance for the economy means that port policy plays a central national role in both the Netherlands and Belgium. In Germany, conversely, ports are predominantly the responsibility of the individual states. This also means that the importance and development of German seaports isn’t always a priority for all of them,” he adds.
“Assertion” as an objective
Frank Dreeke, President of the Central Association of German Seaport Operators (ZDS), assesses the situation similarly, seeing a corresponding competitive advantage for Germany’s neighbours. “Dutch and Belgian politics give the ports there a much higher status,” he explains. “Equally high recognition for the performance and importance of German ports would be extremely beneficial for Germany as a logistics location.” However, Dreeke is confident that German seaports will be able to hold their own in competition with their neighbours . “Invest more money more quickly in the transport and communications infrastructure, review the state aid and antitrust legislation that burden European port operations and make transport route costs competitive.” He adds that retrofitting port equipment to be more environmentally friendly and supporting the transition to new energy sources as cargo and fuel are equally important. “Any entrepreneurial action must be geared towards prevailing over the competition,” he explains when asked about possible cooperative ventures, also those beyond the borders of Germany’s individual states.
“Politics give the ports there a higher status.”
Frank Dreeke, President of the Central Association of German Seaport Operators (ZDS)
Interplay of several factors
For Röhlig Logistics, which provides sea freight, airfreight and contract logistics services in more than 30 countries, it is not only the perfect geographical location of the Netherlands and Belgium that is decisive for their special position. “Dutch inland infrastructure has developed strongly in recent years, which creates enormous opportunities for all modes of transport – rail, inland waterway and heavy goods vehicle – when transporting containers to Germany and Eastern Europe. Plus, compared to other large EU ports, congestion or strikes rarely occur there,” explains Gary Pryke, Regional CEO at Röhlig Logistics for Northern Europe, when summarising the locations’ advantages. Moreover, the Netherlands has special VAT laws that allow importers not based in the country to defer their VAT payment, instead of paying the amount due on import. “For Belgium,” adds Pryke, “the Port of Antwerp offers a fast and sustainable connection to the entire European hinterland thanks to its central location. Around 60 per cent of the EU’s purchasing power is within a 500 km radius of there.” In addition, the port has a high handling productivity rate and has increased its attractiveness for large container ships by deepening the fairway in the Westerschelde.
Röhlig Logistics entered the Belgian market in 1964, although its core business there has shifted from steel exports to the transport of Freight All Kinds (FAK) and breakbulk over the years. The Bremen-based company has been present in the Netherlands since 1983. From consumer goods to clothing and fashion to automobiles and seeds, almost all goods are transported to and from the EU by sea and air. “To a significant degree, the future of our industry will depend on the extent to which digital solutions can be implemented for added value to the customer and how companies succeed in investing in the training and further education of their own staff in the wake of the current shortage of skilled workers,” Pryke clarifies, looking ahead. “After all, these are our greatest assets for the future – and not only in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.” (bre)
“Dutch inland infrastructure has developed strongly in recent years.”
Gary Pryke, Regional CEO at Röhlig Logistics for Northern Europe