EU and main world traders
Data extracted in October 2018
Planned update: October 2019
The EU, the USA and China together accounted for 45% of both global exports and imports of goods in 2017.
Machinery and vehicles were the most traded goods in 2017 for the EU, the USA and China .
This article takes a closer look at recent trends in the imports and exports of goods by several of the world’s largest economies, focusing on key trade statistics for goods and giving an insight into EU trading patterns compared to the world’s major economies. The article only deals with extra-EU trade, and does not consider trade between EU Member States (intra-EU trade).
This article is part of the online publication International trade in goods - a statistical picture which provides 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.
Main world traders: EU, USA and China
In 2017, the EU-28, the United States and China recorded by far the world’s highest trade in goods values. Together, these countries accounted for around 45 % of both global exports and imports of goods (see Figure 1).
China recorded the world’s highest export values at EUR 2 004 billion followed by the EU and the United States, which recorded values of EUR 1 879 billion and EUR 1 368 billion respectively (see Figure 2). Looking at 2017 imports by value, the United States had higher values (EUR 2 131 billion) than the EU (EUR 1 860 billion) and China (EUR 1 632 billion). The United States also recorded the highest trade deficit (EUR -763 billion), followed by India (EUR -133 billion). Among the countries shown, Canada and Mexico (both EUR -10 billion) also had trade deficits. The largest trade surpluses were recorded by China (EUR 371 billion) and Russia (EUR 116 billion).
The United States has traditionally been a major exporting economy but its significance was already smaller than that of the EU and China in 2007 (see Figure 3a). Between 2007 and 2017 the United States' share in total exports fell only slightly from 11.8 % to 11.5 %. The steady growth of China’s trade saw it overtaking the EU in 2014, reaching a peak of 17.9 % in 2015; only in the last two years did the share drop 1 %. The EU had a share of 17.1 % in 2007 which dropped to 15.1 % in 2012 and since 2013 has been close to 16 %. The national export shares of the other main traders are shown separately in Figure 3b to give some more detail.
China’s share in world imports has also increased, from 9.2 % in 2007 to 13.2 % in 2017 narrowing the gap with the EU and the United States (see Figure 4a). The United States remains the largest importer of goods, although its share fell from 19.4 % in 2007 to 17.3 % in 2017. The EU saw an even larger reduction from 19.2 % in 2007 to 15.1 % in 2017. The import shares of the other main traders are shown separately in Figure 4b to give some more detail.
Evolution of EU trade over time
Over the last two decades, the EU grew from 15 to 28 Member States, thus increasing the size of its common market but also becoming a more important competitor on the world stage. The growth in EU trade, however, should not be considered as a mechanical effect of these enlargements; in fact, every enlargement increases the number of traders within the EU block, while reducing the number of partners outside the block.
EU trade grew by around a third between 2007 and 2017. Growth was interrupted in 2009 following the 2008 financial and economic crisis. but both imports and exports recovered quickly. However, in 2013 EU imports slowed down, while exports continued to grow, resulting in a trade surplus of EUR 49 billion. Since then the EU maintained a small trade surplus, which stood at EUR 19 billion in 2017.
Trade by product group
The Standard international trade classification (SITC) distinguishes seven categories. Three of these are primary goods and three are manufactured goods. The last category 'Other' contains coins not used as legal tender, non-monetary gold and products that cannot be labelled either primary or manufactured. The next three paragraphs discuss trade in these SITC categories for the EU-28, the United States and China.
Trade by SITC aggregate in the EU-28
In 2017, 'Machinery and vehicles' was the EU’s most exported product group (EUR 793 billion) and made up 42 % of total exports (see Figure 6), while 'Other manufactured goods' accounted for 23 % (EUR 424 billion) and 'Chemicals' for 18 % (EUR 333 billion). Thus the combined share of manufactured goods (SITC 5–8) made up 83 % of total EU exports in 2016.
Manufactured goods also made up the majority of EU imports (68 %) in 2017. The share of other manufactured goods was 3 % higher in imports than in exports while 'Machinery and vehicles' (32 %) as well as 'Chemicals' (10 % ) accounted for smaller shares than the corresponding export shares.
In 2017, the EU had a trade deficit in primary products and a trade surplus in manufactured products. The deficit in primary products was largely due to the deficit in 'Energy products' (EUR -240 billion) and to a lesser extent in 'Raw materials' (EUR -29 billion), while recording a small surplus in 'Food and drink' (EUR 10 billion) The surplus in manufactured goods came from 'Machinery and vehicles' (EUR 198 billion) and 'Chemicals' (EUR 138 billion) while there was a small deficit in 'Other manufactured goods' (EUR -53 billion).
Trade by SITC aggregate in the United States
Just like the EU, in 2017 the United States had a trade deficit for 'Energy products' (EUR -58 billion), however there were much larger deficits for 'Machinery and vehicles' (EUR -449 billion) and for 'Other manufactured products' (EUR -322 billion) as shown in Figure 7. The United States had small trade deficits in 'Food and drink' (EUR -24 billion) and 'Chemicals' (EUR -17 billion).
The United States only registered trade surpluses for 'Other' (EUR 72 billion) and 'Raw materials' (EUR 34 billion). However, these values were not sufficient to compensate the deficits in the other product groups, resulting in a US trade deficit of EUR -763 billion in 2017. This deficit was EUR 42 billion more than that recorded in 2016 (EUR -721 billion).
'Machinery and vehicles' (EUR 465 billion), 'Other manufactured products' (EUR 264 billion) and 'Chemicals' (EUR 183 billion) were the most exported products, combined they accounted for two thirds of all exports. The same product wer aslo the top three in imports. Combined 'Machinery and vehicles' (EUR 914 billion), 'Other manufactured products' (EUR 586 billion) and 'Chemicals' (EUR 200 billion) accounted for 80 % of all imports.
Trade by SITC aggregate in China
Almost 95 % of China’s exports in 2017 were concentrated in Machinery and vehicles' and 'Other manufactured goods', EUR 958 billion and EUR 811 billion respectively (see Figure 8). China was also the world’s leading exporter in both sectors, well ahead of the EU for the first sector and with an export value higher than that of the EU and the United States combined for the second sector.
China’s largest imports were also in 'Machinery and vehicles' (EUR 651 billion, 40 %) and 'Other manufactured goods' (EUR 239 billion, 15 %) . These were followed by 'Raw materials' (EUR 238 billion, 15 %), 'Energy products' (EUR 221 billion, 14 %) and 'Chemicals' (EUR 171 billion, 11 %). Imports in 'Other' (EUR 58 billion, 4 %) and in 'Food and drink' (EUR 54 billion, 3 %) were smaller. In 2017, China was the world’s leading importer of 'Raw materials' importing twice as much as the EU and US combined and the second largest importer of 'Energy products', behind the EU.
As a result, China registered large trade surpluses in 'Machinery and vehicles' (EUR 308 billion) and especially in 'Other manufactured goods' (EUR 572 billion). The largest trade deficits were recorded for 'Raw materials' (EUR -224 billion) and 'Energy products' (EUR -190 billion).
Source data for tables and graphs
EU data is taken from Eurostat's COMEXT database. COMEXT is the reference database for international trade in goods. 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 via the Eurostat website are compiled from COMEXT data according to a monthly process.
Data are collected by the competent national authorities of the Member States and compiled according to a harmonised methodology established by EU regulations before transmission to Eurostat. For extra-EU trade, the statistical information is mainly provided by the traders on the basis of customs declarations.
EU data are compiled according to community guidelines and may, therefore, differ from national data published by the Member States. Statistics on extra-EU trade are calculated as the sum of trade of each of the 28 EU 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 within it.
Data for the other major traders are taken from the Comtrade database of the United Nations. Data availability differs among countries, therefore Figure 1 shows the latest common available year for all the main traders. For the calculation of shares in Figures 2 and 3 the world trade is defined as the sum of EU trade with non-EU countries (source: Eurostat) plus the international trade of non-EU countries (source: IMF Dots database).
Methodology According to the EU concept and definitions, extra-EU trade statistics (trade between EU Member States and non-EU countries) do not record exchanges involving goods in transit, placed in a customs warehouse or given temporary admission (for trade fairs, temporary exhibitions, tests, etc.). This is known as ‘special trade’. The partner is the country of final destination of the goods for exports and the country of origin for imports.
Information on commodities exported and imported is presented according to the Standard international trade classification (SITC). A full description is available from Eurostat’s classification server RAMON.
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.
Trade is an important indicator of Europe’s prosperity and place in the world. The block is deeply integrated into global markets both for the products it sources and the exports it sells. The EU trade policy is an important element of the external dimension of the ‘Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ and is one of the main pillars of the EU’s relations with the rest of the world.
Because the 28 EU Member States share a single market and a single external border, they also have a single trade policy. EU Member States speak and negotiate collectively, both in the World Trade Organization, where the rules of international trade are agreed and enforced, and with individual trading partners. This common policy enables them to speak with one voice in trade negotiations, maximising their impact in such negotiations. This is even more important in a globalised world in which economies tend to cluster together in regional groups.
The openness of the EU’s trade regime has meant that the EU is the biggest player on the global trading scene and remains a good region to do business with. Thanks to the ease of modern transport and communications, it is now easier to produce, buy and sell goods around the world which gives European companies of every size the potential to trade outside Europe.
- International trade in goods (t_ext_go), see:
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators (t_ext_go_lti)
- International trade in goods - short-term indicators (t_ext_go_sti)
- International trade in goods (ext_go), see:
- International trade in goods - aggregated data (ext_go_agg)
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators (ext_go_lti)
- International trade in goods - short-term indicators (ext_go_sti)
- International trade in goods - detailed data (detail)
- International trade in goods statistics - background
- International trade in goods (ESMS metadata file — ext_go_agg_esms)
- User guide on European statistics on international trade in goods