International trade in goods

Data from March 2016. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: March 2017.

This article discusses the development of the European Union’s (EU) international trade in goods. It considers the EU’s share in world import and export markets, intra-EU trade, the EU’s main trading partners, and the EU’s most widely traded product categories.

The EU-28 accounts for around 15 % of the world’s trade in goods. The value of international trade in goods significantly exceeds that of services (by about three times), reflecting the nature of some services which makes them harder to trade across borders.

Figure 1: Main players for international trade, 2014
(billion EUR)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_introle) and (ext_lt_intercc)
Figure 2: Cover ratio for international trade, 2004 and 2014
(%)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_introle) and (ext_lt_intercc)
Figure 3: Trade balance for international trade, 2004 and 2014
(billion EUR)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_introle) and (ext_lt_intercc)
Figure 4: Shares in the world market for exports, 2014
(% share of world exports)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_introle)
Figure 5: Shares in the world market for imports, 2014
(% share of world imports)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_introle)
Figure 6: Development of international trade, EU-28, 2005–15 (1)
(billion EUR)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_intertrd)
Table 1: International trade, 2014–15
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_intertrd), (ext_lt_intercc) and (ext_lt_introle)
Figure 7: Extra EU-28 trade, 2015
(% share of EU-28 exports/imports)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_intratrd)
Figure 8: Intra EU-28 trade, 2015
(% share of EU-28 dispatches/arrivals)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_intratrd)
Figure 9: Intra and extra EU-28 trade, 2015
(imports plus exports, % share of total trade)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_intratrd)
Figure 10: Extra EU-28 trade by main trading partners, EU-28, 2005 and 2015 (1)
(billion EUR)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_maineu)
Figure 11: Main trading partners for exports, EU-28, 2015
(% share of extra EU-28 exports)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_maineu)
Figure 12: Main trading partners for imports, EU-28, 2015
(% share of extra EU-28 imports)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_maineu)
Figure 13: Extra EU-28 trade by main products, EU-28, 2010 and 2015
(billion EUR)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_intertrd)
Figure 14: Main exports, EU-28, 2010 and 2015
(% share of extra EU-28 exports)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_intratrd)
Figure 15: Main imports, EU-28, 2010 and 2015
(% share of extra EU-28 imports)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_intratrd)
Figure 16: Main exports and imports, EU-28, 2015
(% share of extra EU-28 exports/imports)
Source: Eurostat (ext_lt_intratrd)

Main statistical findings

Main global players for international trade

The EU-28, China and the United States have been the three largest global players for international trade (see Figure 1) since 2004 when China passed Japan.

In 2014, the relation between exports and imports (the cover ratio) was particularly high in favour of exports in Russia and Norway (see Figure 2), while in absolute terms China and Russia have had the largest annual trade surpluses since 2005; in 2014, the United States had the largest annual deficit (see Figure 3).

Looking at the flows of exports and imports, the EU-28 had the second largest share of global exports and imports of goods (see Figures 4 and 5) in 2014: the EU-28’s exports of goods were equivalent to 15.0 % of the world total, and in 2014 were surpassed for the first time since the EU was founded by those of China (15.5 %), but still ahead of the United States (12.2 %); the United States had a larger share of world imports (15.9 %) than either the EU-28 (14.8 %) or China (12.9 %).

Extra-EU trade

EU-28 international trade in goods with the rest of the world (the sum of extra-EU exports and imports) was valued at EUR 3 517 billion in 2015 (see Figure 6 and Table 1). Both imports and exports increased in comparison with 2014, but this increase was larger for exports (EUR 88 billion) than for imports (EUR 35 billion). As a result, the EU-28’s trade surplus increased from EUR 11 billion in 2014 to EUR 64 billion in 2015.

After experiencing a sharp fall in both exports and imports in 2009, the EU-28 saw its exports rise 58.7 % over four years to a record level of EUR 1 737 billion in 2013. Exports then fell 1.9 % in 2014 before rising 5.1 % to a new peak in 2015 of EUR 1 791 billion. By contrast, the increase in imports after 2009 was 45.5 % over three years to peak in 2012 at EUR 1 798 billion. Imports fell 6.2 % in 2013 before stabilising (up 0.3 %) in 2014 and increasing by 2.0 % in 2015, still below the value reached in 2012.

Germany was by far the largest Member State in relation to extra EU-28 trade in 2015, contributing 28.2 % of the EU-28’s exports of goods to non-member countries and accounting for almost one fifth (18.8 %) of the EU-28’s imports (see Figure 7). The next three largest exporters, the United Kingdom (12.9 %), France (10.5 %) and Italy (10.4 %), remained the same as in 2014 (although France’s extra-EU-28 exports surpassed those of Italy), and were the only other EU Member States to account for a double-digit share of EU-28 exports. The United Kingdom (15.2 %), the Netherlands (14.4 %), France (9.5 %) and Italy (8.9 %) followed Germany as the largest importers of goods from non-member countries in 2015. The relatively high share for the Netherlands can, at least in part, be explained by the considerable amount of goods that flow into the EU through Rotterdam, which is the EU’s leading sea port. The largest extra EU-28 trade surplus in goods, valued at EUR 179.4 billion in 2015, was recorded by Germany, followed by Italy (EUR 33.7 billion) and Ireland (EUR 29.3 billion).

Intra-EU trade

Trade in goods between EU Member States (intra-EU trade) was valued — in terms of dispatches — at EUR 3 070 billion in 2015. This was 71 % higher than the level recorded for exports leaving the EU-28 to non-member countries of EUR 1 791 billion (extra-EU trade).

Intra EU-28 trade — again measured by dispatches — increased by 4.7 % across the EU-28 between 2014 and 2015; this was the sixth consecutive annual rise since 2009. Considering arrivals and dispatches together, the biggest increases in intra-EU trade were registered for Ireland (13.4 %) and Croatia (12.3 %), while Estonia (-2.7 %), Latvia (-2.1 %), Belgium (-0.4 %) and Finland (-0.2 %) were the only EU Member States to record a reduction in intra-EU trade in 2015.

As for extra EU-28 trade, Germany was also the largest Member State in relation to intra EU-28 trade in 2015, contributing 22.6 % of the EU-28’s dispatches of goods to other Member States and also just over one fifth (20.9 %) of the EU-28’s arrivals of goods from other Member States (see Figure 8). The Netherlands (12.6 %) was the only other Member State to contribute more than one tenth of intra-EU dispatches, again a consequence of the Rotterdam effect, while France (11.8 %) and the United Kingdom (10.2 %) accounted for more than one tenth of intra-EU-28 arrivals.

The importance of the EU’s internal market is underlined by the fact that intra-EU trade in goods (dispatches and arrivals combined) was higher than extra-EU trade (exports and imports combined) for each EU Member State, with the exception of the United Kingdom (see Figure 9). The proportion of total trade in goods that was accounted for by intra-EU and extra-EU flows varied considerably across the Member States, reflecting to some degree historical ties and geographical location. The highest shares of intra-EU trade (around 80 % of total trade) were recorded for Luxembourg, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with this ratio falling to 49.7 % in the United Kingdom.

Analysis of main trading partners

Between 2005 and 2015, the development of the EU-28’s exports of goods by major trading partner varied considerably. Among the main trading partners, the highest growth rate was recorded for exports to China which more than trebled, while exports to South Korea and Brazil more than doubled (see Figure 10). Exports to Japan and Russia grew more slowly and were approximately 30 % higher in 2015 than they had been in 2005.

On the import side, between 2005 and 2015 the EU-28 saw a decrease in the value of its imports of goods from Japan (down 20 %). The greatest increases were registered for imports from China and India which more than doubled.

The United States remained, by far, the most common destination for goods exported from the EU-28 in 2015 (see Figure 11), although the share of EU-28 exports destined for the United States fell from 28.0 % of the total in 2002 to 16.7 % in 2013 before recovering to 20.7 % by 2015. China was the second most important destination market for EU-28 exports in 2015 (9.5 % of the EU-28 total), followed by Switzerland (8.4 %). In 2015, Turkey overtook Russia to be the fourth largest destination for EU-28 exports of goods. The seven largest destination markets for EU-28 exports of goods — China, the United States, Russia, Switzerland, Norway, Turkey and Japan — accounted for more than half (53.1 %) of all EU-28 exports of goods.

The seven largest suppliers of EU-28 imports of goods were the same countries as the seven largest destination markets for EU-28 exports, although their order was slightly different (compare Figures 11 and 12). These seven countries accounted for a larger share of the EU-28’s imports of goods than their share of EU-28 exports of goods: nearly three fifths (59.8 %) of all imports of goods into the EU-28 came from these seven countries. China was the origin for more than one fifth (20.3 %) of all imports into the EU-28 in 2015 and was the largest supplier of goods imported into the EU-28. The United States’ share of EU-28 imports of goods (14.4 %) was around 6 percentage points lower than that of China, while the share of Russia (7.9 %), which was the third largest supplier of goods to the EU-28, was a further 6 percentage points smaller. In 2015, Turkey overtook Japan to be the sixth largest supplier of EU-28 imports of goods.

Analysis of main product groups

Between 2010 and 2015, the value of the EU-28’s imports and exports increased for all product groups shown in Figure 13, except for the imports of mineral fuels and lubricant products which fell 14.7 %. The highest growth rate for exports was reported for food, drinks and tobacco for which an increase of 49.5 % was observed. The imports of these products also increased strongly (up 33.8 %), but this growth was surpassed by chemicals and related products where growth of 34.8 % was recorded.

The EU-28’s trade surplus for goods of EUR 64.2 billion in 2015 was driven by a positive trade balance in relation to machinery and transport equipment, which stood at EUR 218.0 billion, and in relation to chemicals and related products (EUR 129.9 billion). Between 2010 and 2015, the EU-28 reported an increase in the trade surplus for both of these product groups. For food, drinks and tobacco, the EU-28 moved from a small trade deficit in 2010 to a similar sized trade surplus in 2015. For the other three product groups shown in Figure 13 the EU-28 reported a smaller trade deficit in 2015 than it had in 2010. The largest trade deficit in 2015 was for mineral fuels and lubricant products where imports exceeded exports by EUR 243.2 billion.

The structure of the EU-28’s exports of goods changed between 2010 and 2015 most notably among the smaller product groups (see Figure 14). The share of food, drinks and tobacco products increased from 5.6 % to 6.3 % between these years while the share of mineral fuels and lubricant products fell from 5.8 % to 4.8 %.

The largest change between 2010 and 2015 in the structure of the EU-28’s imports was for mineral fuels and lubricant products, whose share fell from 25.2 % to 19.0 % (see Figure 15). By contrast, over the same period the share of other manufactured goods rose from 23.8 % to 26.1 %, while the share of machinery and transport equipment rose from 28.9 % to 31.0 %.

Figure 16 contrasts the structure of the EU-28’s imports and exports in 2015: it should be borne in mind that the overall level of exports was around 3.7 % higher than imports. The most notable difference is the share of mineral fuels and lubricant products which was several times higher for imports than for exports. This was balanced by lower import shares for machinery and transport equipment and for chemicals and related products.

Data sources and availability

Statistics on the international trade of goods measure the value and quantity of goods traded between EU Member States (known as intra-EU trade) and goods traded by EU Member States with non-member countries (known as extra-EU trade). These statistics are the official source of information about imports, exports and the trade balance in the EU, its Member States and the euro area.

Statistics are published for each declaring country with respect to each partner country, for several product classifications. One of the most commonly used product classifications is the standard international trade classification (SITC Rev. 4) of the United Nations (UN); this allows a comparison of international trade statistics to be made on a worldwide basis.

In extra-EU trade statistics, the data shown for the EU-28 treat this entity as a single trading block. In other words, the data for exports relate only to those exports from the EU-28 that leave the trading block and are destined for the rest of the world, while extra-EU imports relate to imports from the rest of the world (non-member countries) coming into the EU-28. By contrast, when reporting data for individual EU Member States, international trade flows are generally presented in terms of world trade flows (including both intra-EU and extra-EU partners). The following definitions of extra-EU-28 flows are used:

  • imports are goods which enter the statistical territory of the EU from a non-member country and are placed under the customs procedure for free circulation (as a general rule goods intended for consumption), inward processing, or processing under customs control (goods for working, processing), either immediately or after a period in a customs warehouse;
  • exports are goods which leave the statistical territory of the EU for a non-member country after being placed under the customs procedure for exports (definitive export), outward processing, or re-exportation following either inward processing or processing under customs control.

Statistics on trade with non-member countries do not, therefore, include goods in transit or those placed under a customs procedure for bonded warehousing or temporary entry (for fairs, exhibitions, tests, etc.), nor do they include re-export following entry under one of these procedures. Statistics on trade between the EU Member States (intra-EU trade) cover arrivals and dispatches of goods recorded by each Member State. Arrivals and dispatches are defined as follows:

  • arrivals are goods in free circulation within the EU which enter the statistical territory of a given Member State;
  • dispatches are goods in free circulation within the EU which leave the statistical territory of a given Member State to enter another Member State.

Customs records are the traditional source of statistical data on trade in goods. The beginning of the single market on 1 January 1993, with its removal of customs formalities between EU Member States, made it necessary to adopt a new data collection system, Intrastat, as the basis for statistics on intra-EU trade. In the Intrastat system, statistical data are collected directly from trade operators — who are requested to send monthly declarations to their national statistical administration.

The statistical values of extra-EU trade and intra-EU trade are recorded at their free-on-board (FOB) value for exports/dispatches and their cost, insurance and freight (CIF) value for imports/arrivals. The values reported comprise only those subsidiary costs (freight and insurance) which relate, for exports/dispatches, to the journey within the territory of the Member State from which the goods are exported/dispatched and, for imports/arrivals, to the journey outside the territory of the Member State into which the goods are imported/arrive.

Context

Statistics on the international trade of goods are used extensively by decision makers at an international, EU and national level. Businesses may use international trade data to carry out market research and define their commercial strategy. International trade statistics are also used by EU institutions in their preparation of multilateral and bilateral trade negotiations, for defining and implementing anti-dumping policies, for the purposes of macroeconomic and monetary policies, and in evaluating the progress of the single market, or the integration of European economies.

The development of trade can be an opportunity for economic growth. The EU has a common trade policy, whereby the European Commission negotiates trade agreements and represents the EU’s interests on behalf of its 28 Member States. The European Commission consults Member States through an advisory committee which discusses the full range of trade policy issues affecting the EU including multilateral, bilateral and unilateral instruments. As such, trade policy is an exclusive power of the EU — so only the EU, and not individual Member States, can legislate on trade matters and conclude international trade agreements. This scope extends beyond trade in goods, to cover trade in services, intellectual property and foreign direct investment.

Globally, multilateral trade issues are dealt with under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The WTO has 162 members (as of March 2016), with several candidate members in the process of joining. The WTO sets the global rules for trade, provides a forum for trade negotiations, and for settling disputes between members. The European Commission negotiates with its WTO partners and participated in the latest round of WTO multilateral trade negotiations, known as the Doha Development Agenda (DDA). However, having missed deadlines to conclude these talks in 2005 and again in 2006, the Doha round of talks broke down again at a WTO meeting in July 2008. In December 2013, progress was made on some areas with the adoption in Bali (Indonesia) of a package of agreements, including action on trade facilitation, a commitment to reduce export subsidies in agriculture, and further issues related to development such as food security in developing countries. At the 10th Ministerial Conference of WTO members in Nairobi in December 2015, an agreement on a series of trade initiatives was reached that aimed to benefit in particular the organisation’s poorest members. This included a commitment to abolish export subsidies for farm products.

The EU is in the process of trying to negotiate a trade and investment deal with the United States — the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It is hoped that any future agreement will provide a stimulus to economic growth in both regions.

See also

Further Eurostat information

Publications

Main tables

International trade data (t_ext)
International trade long-term indicators (t_ext_lti)
International trade short-term indicators (t_ext_sti)

Database

International trade data (ext)
International trade long-term indicators (ext_lti)
International trade short-term indicators (ext_sti)
International trade detailed data (detail)

Dedicated section

Methodology / Metadata

Source data for tables and figures (MS Excel)

Other information

External links