Extra-EU trade in primary goods - Statistics Explained

Extra-EU trade in primary goods

Data from May 2018

Planned update May 2019

In trade between the EU and non-Member States, primary goods made up 14 % of all EU exports and 28 % of EU imports in 2017.

The United States was the main EU trading partner for food and drink among the non-EU Member States in 2017.

The major energy provider in 2017 for the EU was Russia (29 % of total imports), while the major providers of raw materials were the United States and Brazil (each 12 % of total imports) .

EU-28 trade in primary goods, 2008-2017 (EUR billion)

This article focuses on the structure and evolution of the European Union (EU) international trade in primary goods: imports and exports at EU level. Primary goods, also called commodities, are goods sold for production or consumption just as they were found in nature; they include crude oil, coal, iron, and agricultural products like wheat or cotton.

This article is part of an online publication providing recent statistics on international trade in goods, covering information on the EU's main partners, main products traded, specific characteristics of trade as well as background information.

Full article

EU is a net importer of primary goods

In 2017 the EU exported EUR 270 billion of primary goods to countries outside the EU and imported EUR 529 billion of primary goods (Figure 1). Compared to 2008 exports have increased by EUR 85 billion while imports decreased by EUR 88 billion. Thus the trade deficit was reduced by EUR 173 billion from EUR 432 billion in 2008 to EUR 259 billion in 2017.

Figure 1: EU-28 trade in primary goods, 2008-2017
(EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00062)

The share of primary products in total extra EU exports was 14 % in 2008 and rose slightly to 16 % in 2012 and 2013 but returned to 14 % in 2017 (Figure 2). In contrast there was more fluctuation of the share of primary products in total extra EU imports. It was 39 % in 2008, peaking at 40% in 2012 and had a minimum of 26 % in 2016 before rising to 28 % in 2017. Part of these fluctuations is due to changing prices of primary goods.

Figure 2: Share of primary goods in total extra-EU imports and exports, 2008-2017
Source: Eurostat (TET00062)

Exports of primary products consist for 45 % of food and drink, followed by 36 % of energy and 18 % for raw materials (Figure 3). In imports of primary products the share for energy is 64 %, followed by 21 % for food and drink and 15 % for raw materials. In absolute values there was a small trade surplus of EUR 10 billion for food and drink. In raw materials there was a trade deficit of EUR 28 billion but the largest deficit, EUR 240 billion was for energy products.

Figure 3: Export and imports of primary goods by main groups, 2017
(EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00062)

The remainder of the article will look at the development and the top ten trading partners of the EU in the three groups distinguished in primary goods: food and drink, raw materials and energy products.

Food and drink: USA main importer from EU

Product group ‘food and drink’ (SITC Sections 0 and 1) includes agricultural products such as food and live animals, beverages and tobacco.

Trade in food and drink had a dip in 2009 but grew rapidly after that, with export growing stronger than imports (Figure 4). The EU was traditionally a net importer, but records a trade surplus since 2012.

Figure 4: EU-28 trade in food and drink, 2008-2017
(EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00034)

The USA is the main importer of food and drink from the EU with a 16 % share (Figure 5). It is followed by China, Switzerland, Japan, Russia and Norway. Brazil is the main exporter of food and drink to the EU with a 9 % share. The other main suppliers of food and drink are the USA, Norway, Argentina, China and Turkey.

Figure 5: EU-28 main trade partners in food and drink, 2017
(% and EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00034)

More details on trade in food and drink can be found in this article on agricultural goods.

Raw materials: USA and Brazil largest exporters to EU

Raw materials (SITC Sections 2 and 4) include non-manufactured goods like oilseeds, cork, wood, pulp, textile fibres, ores and other minerals as well as animal and vegetable oils.

The EU has an ongoing trade deficit. Both imports and exports were at a low in 2009 and after a rapid recovery they started to decline until 2016 but increased again in 2017 (Figure 6). The trade deficit was above EUR 40 billion in 2008 and again in 2011 but decreased to 26 billion in 2016 before growing slightly to EUR 28 billion in 2017.

Figure 6: EU-28 trade in raw materials, 2008-2017
(EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00033)

With 12 % each, the United States and Brazil are the largest two exporters of raw materials to the EU (Figure 7). Canada, Indonesia, Russia and Ukraine are the other main exporters, all with shares of 6 %. The main six countries account for 47 % of EU imports. China, with 23 %, is the largest importer of raw materials from the EU, followed by the United States and Turkey who each have a share of 10 %.

Figure 7: EU-28 main trade partners in raw materials, 2017
(% and EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00033)

More details on trade in raw materials can be found in this article on raw materials.

Energy products: Russia main energy provider to EU

The main goods of energy products (SITC Section 3) are crude oil, refined petroleum products, coal, gas and electric current.

The EU is dependent on imports of energy products. This has led to a structural trade deficit, which reached a record level of EUR 422 billion in 2012 (Figure 8). The value of imports closely follows the price of crude oil which explains the decline of the trade deficit in between 2012 and 2016 when it reached EUR 190 billion. However in 2017 it increased again to EUR 240 billion.

Figure 8: EU-28 trade in energy products, 2008-2017
(EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00032)

The major energy providers for the EU are Russia (29 % of the imports in 2017) and Norway (12 %) (Figure 9). Algeria, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Kazakhstan all have share between 4 and 6 %. The combined share of the top 6 is 60 %. The United States is the main destination of EU exports of energy products (11%). China and Switzerland are the second and third largest exports destinations (6 % and 5 % respectively) but due to the focus of this article on the top ten partners in total trade are hidden in the 'other' category in Figure 9.

Figure 9: EU-28 main trade partners in energy products, 2017
(% and EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00032)

More details on trade in energy can be found in this article on EU imports of energy products.

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources

The Standard international trade classification (SITC) distinguishes five main categories (sections) of primary goods:

  • food and live animals (SITC 0 );
  • beverages and tobacco (SITC 1);
  • crude materials, excluding fuels (SITC 2);
  • mineral fuels (SITC 3);
  • animal and vegetable oils, fats and waxes (SITC 4).

Sections 0 and 1 are often grouped together as 'food and drink', 2 and 4 as 'raw materials'.

Data sources

EU data come from Eurostat’s COMEXT database. COMEXT is the Eurostat reference database for international trade. It provides access not only to both recent and historical data from the EU Member States but also to statistics of a significant number of third countries. International trade aggregated and detailed statistics disseminated from Eurostat website are compiled from COMEXT data according to a monthly process. Because COMEXT is updated on a daily basis, data published on the website may differ from data stored in COMEXT in case of recent revisions.

EU data are compiled according to community guidelines and may, therefore, differ from national data published by Member States. Statistics on extra-EU trade are calculated as the sum of trade of each of the 28 Member States with countries outside the EU. In other words, the EU is considered as a single trading entity and trade flows are measured into and out of the area, but not among Member States within it the EU.

Unit of measure

Trade values are expressed in billions (109) of euros. They correspond to the statistical value, i.e. to the amount which would be invoiced in case of sale or purchase at the national border of the reporting country. It is called a FOB value (free on board) for exports and a CIF value (cost, insurance, freight) for imports.


Primary goods belong to three categories of products: agricultural products, raw materials and energy. The EU is the world’s foremost trader in agricultural products. Europe imports mostly basic agricultural commodities, but its exports are based on high-quality farm products and other processed agricultural products. Recognising the crucial role that agriculture plays in many developing countries, the EU has granted extensive market access to agricultural imports from developing countries. The European Union, due to the characteristics of the European industrial base, is highly dependent on imports of raw materials for its competitiveness and for its economic development. An increase in worldwide demand in raw materials in the future is expected; this increase will be largely due to economic growth in emerging economies. The European Union is also dependent on imports of energy from other countries. One of the key priorities is therefore to run a strategic international energy policy which leads to stable and secure supply routes.

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