Antwerp and Bruges Combine to Become Europe’s Largest Export Port

Antwerp and Bruges combine ports to be leader in Europe
Combined the ports of Antwerrp and Bruges are leaders in exports, ro-ro, natural gas, liquid bulk and containers (Antwerp file photo)

Published Apr 28, 2022 5:34 PM by The Maritime Executive

The cities of Antwerp and Bruges in Belgium completed the merger of their port companies to form what they are calling Europe’s largest export port. The newly created Port of Antwerp-Bruges looks to leverage the neighboring ports’ strengths in ro-ro, chemical, and container traffic as it works to also prepare for future changes in the shipping industry and address short-term challenges created by the EU sanctions on Russia and the continuing effect from the pandemic.

Calling the two ports' operations “largely complementary,” the new port company cites Antwerp’s strengths in the handling and storage of containers, breakbulk, and chemical products. Bruges' modern port, Zeebrugge, is a major port for ro-ro traffic, container handling, and transshipment of liquid natural gas. Combined the two port locations handle 289 million tons of marine freight traffic annually with the largest share in containers followed by liquid bulk. In 2021, the ports handled 14.2 million TEU, which places it a close second to Rotterdam, Europe’s largest container port, which handled 15.3 million TEU last year.

"The unified port is not only the economic engine of Flanders, but together, the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge will also form the largest export port, largest throughput port for vehicles, and the leading chemical hub in Europe,” said Annick De Ridder, Vice-Mayor of the City of Antwerp and President of the board of directors of Port of Antwerp-Bruges. “At the same time, Port of Antwerp-Bruges has major ambitions to become the energy gateway to Europe as a 'green port'.”

Last year was a challenging one for the ports, with officials recently saying that the EU sanctions on Russia would also impact operations. While Antwerp recorded a small gain in tonnage in 2021 it was largely even with 2019 levels and reported a slight decline in container volumes for the year. Russia was the fifth most important trading partner for Antwerp in 2021 with a throughput of 11.6 million tons. While Russian flagged ships represented less than one percent of the calls in 2021, port officials projected that the sanctions would reduce volumes by four to five percent.

After years of discussion, in February 2021, the City of Antwerp and the City of Bruges announced the official launch of the merger process for their ports. The city leaders completed the agreement on April 22 saying that the Port of Antwerp-Bruges has the ambition of becoming the first global port to reconcile economy, people, and climate. The unified port plans to further strengthen its position in the international logistics chain, and take a leading role in the energy and digital transition.

By focusing on bolstering interconnectivity between the Antwerp and Bruges sites, the ports look to achieve economies of scale that will help in emerging areas such as digitalization and building the infrastructure to support the transition to green operations including what they are calling a pioneering role in hydrogen and CO2 reuse. Near-term they have initiatives underway including an extra container capacity project in Antwerp as well as developing a container plan to carry the ports to 2030. Elsewhere, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges continues to invest in strategic infrastructure including the Europa Terminal in Antwerp, as well as a new lock and the Maritime Logistics Zone in Zeebrugge.

They also look to leverage the ports’ position as the second-largest petrochemical cluster in the world to become a green energy hub and help shape the energy transition towards a sustainable future. The unified port will continue and extend its project for the capture, storage, and reuse of CO2 saying that the first 2.5 million tons of CO2 will be captured from industry at the port by 2025. This CO2 will be stored and eventually reused as a raw material for a wide range of applications.

By 2028, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges plans to have the capacity to receive the first green hydrogen molecules on its platform. To meet this goal, it is working to expand terminal capacity for existing and new hydrogen carriers at both port sites. They are also planning a hydrogen pipeline between the two sites that will be used to supply energy to Europe.