March 28, 2019 / 4:27 PM / 7 months ago

Belgium gears up for economic hit from hard Brexit

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium’s economy would contract nearly 1 percent and Belgians would become poorer if Britain crashes out of the European Union in a chaotic way, a central bank official said on Thursday.

Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel talks to the media as he arrives at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgium, whose North Sea ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge are the gateway for large amounts of goods trade with the United Kingdom, is one of the EU countries most exposed to the impact of Brexit.

“The national bank estimates the economic cost of a hard Brexit at 0.9 percent of GDP,” Hand Geeroms, the central bank’s senior EU policy adviser told a news conference afterwards.

“The most optimistic scenario gives a loss in purchasing power of 0.4 percent. The most pessimistic scenario gives a loss in purchasing power of 2.5 percent.”

“This is the price Belgians will pay for a decision of the British people to leave the single market,” he said.

Belgian goods exports to Britain totalled 31.5 billion euros last year, roughly the same as UK-bound exports from France. The northern region of Flanders accounts for the lion’s share of the country’s total.

Some 4,000 containers head for the UK from Zeebrugge every day, and Belgium is hiring hundreds of customs officials for its ports.

Leuven university has previously estimated that a no-deal Brexit could lead to 28,000 job losses in the country of 11.5 million people.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told the news conference his government was pushing ahead with preparations for such a scenario.

“But I also say clearly that I know we will face problems. It won’t be a walk in the park. We know that very well,” he added.

For now, Belgium and the other EU states staying on together are left guessing the eventual outcome of Brexit, with options still ranging from a disruptive no-deal to a long delay or even a reversal of Brexit.

The EU has given Britain until April 12 to decide on its next steps if it cannot ratify this week the divorce deal that Prime Minister Theresa May finished negotiating with the bloc last November.

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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