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Foreign investment into Europe set to rebound in 2021

While the turbulence and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in foreign direct investment (FDI) in Europe falling by 13% in 2020, 40% of businesses plan to establish or expand operations in Europe in the next 12 months, compared with 27% at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the annual EY Europe Attractiveness Survey.

The EY Europe Attractiveness Survey is based on qualitative research conducted in March and April 2021 with 550 international decision-makers - from companies across a range of industries and headquartered around the globe, from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to multinationals - and quantitative analysis of FDI projects announced in Europe in 2020. The survey finds that for the first time, France, the UK and Germany are virtually tied as Europe’s most attractive investment destinations, attracting 985, 975 and 930 projects respectively, owing to investment in Germany falling less precipitously than in France and the UK, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Critical ingredients for investors

Four key factors emerge from the survey as critical when investors decide where to invest:

1. Skills

The new role of technology triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic - in customer experience, more automated production lines and back offices, and 'phygital' (physical and digital) work environments - means revamping Europe’s digital skills base is imperative. Eighty-two percent of respondents say the availability of a workforce with technology skills and 75% say countries with a 5G rollout plan are important factors in their choice of location.

2. Sustainability

Environmental sustainability will influence investors’ location decisions with 90% of respondents saying it is important to their investment strategy and 85% already consider Europe a “green leader”.

3. Stimulus

Foreign investors noted that national and European recovery plans are aimed at the long-term and deep-rooted transformation of economies and societies. Businesses also expect governments to provide short-term economic stimulus and help restart the European economy.

4. Simplification

Tax stability, transparency and harmonisation are crucial as those doing business in Europe face a perfect storm of agreed changes and upcoming challenges. For example, standardised corporate tax rates will impact location strategies for investors as well as new digital business and environmental regulation and tax, which are to be defined. 

"Business leaders around the globe are being propelled toward a paradigm shift, expedited by the COVID-19 pandemic," said Julie Teigland, EMEIA Area Managing Partner at EY. "Success is beginning to be defined differently. The corporate world is entering the era of purpose-led growth, growth that is sustainable and delivers value that will benefit all stakeholders. FDI is one of the most impactful drivers of positive change in countries and for societies."

Path to recovery and industry analysis

The survey finds that there are several short- and long-term risks to Europe’s attractiveness. In the short-term the vaccine-driven economic recovery could falter if new COVID-19 strains emerge that require a return to social distancing. In the long-term, businesses are concerned about protectionism and uncertainty about tariff and trade policies that represent a greater threat to Europe’s attractiveness than they did in 2020. Further, the US’ vast economic stimulus programme may attract some FDI away from Europe. At the same time, the impact of the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility - closely aligned with the European Commission’s priorities of green and digital transitions that will make €672.5bn in loans and grants available to help member states to recover - is yet to be seen. However, respondents want governments to simultaneously outline a clear, immediate path for the sustained safe reopening of public life and businesses as well as provide longer-term support for the recovery of European economies.

Supply chain disruption, restrictions on movement, national lockdowns and uncertain demand caused manufacturing FDI to decline 22% since 2019. A spike in logistics investment by online retailers more than compensated for a significant decline in industrial logistics. Inclinations toward major supply chain reorganisation that were present when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit have evaporated: just 20% of businesses feel they have to re-shore or nearshore operations in the short term, compared with 83% last year. FDI in life sciences increased by 62% and was the only major sector that experienced an increase in foreign investment as businesses rapidly moved to meet surging demand for COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and personal protective equipment.

"Our survey shows that European countries must cater to businesses’ changing priorities, propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic," Teigland added. "The size and scope of the EU’s COVID-19 stimulus package, the Recovery and Resilience Facility, targets the technology transition and the green resolution that aligns with potential investors’ considerations for the region. Business leaders tell us that digital infrastructure and skills and a robust sustainability agenda that takes into account the positive environmental impact of new projects are critical in determining where they invest. And the projects are out there, for example, the EY organisation has identified 1,000 shovel-ready green projects that could create three million jobs, almost a quarter of the number lost due to the pandemic."

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