EU trade in COVID-19 related products
Data extracted in March 2021.
Planned article update: April 2022.
China, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States were the largest EU trade partners for COVID-19 related products in 2020.
Protective garments (including facemasks) and oxygen equipment were the most imported COVID-19 related products into the EU in 2020.
To help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have taken a variety of restrictive measures, which have negatively affected international trade in goods, with a few noteworthy exceptions. Among these are goods used in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic: sterilisation products (incl. disinfectants), medical vehicles and furniture, protective garments, diagnostic testing equipment, medical devices, oxygen therapy equipment and medical consumables, or so called ‘COVID-19 related products’. In this article, imports and exports of these goods are presented by product group and compared over time with other similar products, across EU Member States and by main trade partner.
In 2020, extra-EU imports and exports of COVID-19 related products increased by 10.4 % and 5.5 % respectively, compared to 2019. In contrast, trade in other similar products , dropped by 3.8 % for imports and by 7.1 % for exports. When analysing the separate semesters, the growth in the first semester was even larger than in the second semester, because of the general reaction to the shortage of medical products needed for tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the economic downturn and a decrease in total extra-EU trade, imports increased for all types of COVID-19 related products in 2020, while exports recorded a decrease in some categories. Extra-EU imports of protective garments and oxygen equipment recorded the highest increase (respectively by 40.3 % and 38.7% compared with 2019) amongst COVID-19 related products, followed by diagnostic equipment (19.2 %) and sterilization products (19.1 %). The highest increases for extra-EU exports were recorded for sterilization products (16.0 %) and diagnostic testing equipment (14.9%). The category with the largest decrease was medical vehicles and furniture, which fell by 10.8 %.
The four main trading partners for COVID-19 related products were the United States, Switzerland, China and the United Kingdom (Figure 3). The United States was the largest partner for exports and imports, in both cases followed by Switzerland. For exports the United Kingdom was the third largest partner followed by China while for imports this was the other way around. The remainder of this paragraph focuses on these four partners.
Throughout most of 2019 and 2020 the United States was the largest partner for EU imports of COVID-19 related products, followed by Switzerland and China (Figure 4). However, between November 2019 and July 2020 there were some months were Switzerland overtook the United States. In April and May 2020, imports from China increased significantly, in large part, this was due to the import of protective garments.
Throughout the whole period under consideration, the United States was the largest partner of COVID-19 related exports (Figure 5). Exports to the United States were very high in March 2020 while they peaked for Switzerland in March 2019. After that, exports to Switzerland, China and the United Kingdom remained fairly close together.
In imports of COVID-19 related products the different groups were fairly evenly divided for each of the four main partners (Figure 6). For the United States the largest group was medical devices (16 %), while for Switzerland and China it was medical vehicles and furniture (for both countries 17 %). Only the United Kingdom, with 21 % for sterilization products, had one group that was clearly larger than the other groups.
Similarly, in exports of COVID-19 related products the different groups were fairly evenly divided for each of the four main partners (Figure 6). For the United States the largest group was protective garments (17 %), for the United Kingdom it was sterilization product (16 %) and for China it was medical devices (17 %). Only Switzerland with 23 %, also for medical devices had one group that was clearly larger than the other groups.
Per capita trade largest in Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovenia
Figure 8 shows that per capita imports of COVID-19 related products in 2020 were highest in Belgium (EUR 5 334), the Netherlands (EUR 2 990), Slovenia (EUR 2 967) (see footnote 2) and Ireland (EUR 2 668). These same four countries, but in a different order, also had the highest per capita exports. Ireland had by far the highest per capita values (EUR 16 808), reflecting a high specialisation in the trading of these products, especially diagnostic test equipment and medical consumables. Ireland was followed by Belgium (EUR 6 037), the Netherlands (EUR 4 313) and Slovenia (EUR 3 543). The lowest values for imports per capita were observed in Poland (EUR 454), Greece (EUR 427), Romania (EUR 368) and Bulgaria (EUR 330). The majority of countries (19 out of 27) recorded per capita imports between EUR 500 and EUR 1 500.
The growth rates for imports of COVID-19 related products in 2020 compared to 2019 were highest in Slovenia, Hungary (both 36 %) and Croatia (30 %). In exports Greece (48 %), Slovenia (42 %) and Lithuania (37 %) had growth rates higher than 30 %. There were no Member States where imports fell between 2019 and 2020. In exports there was a decline only for Denmark, Latvia and Italy (each -5 %).
Tables 1 and 2 show per capita imports and exports in 2020. Belgium had the highest per capita value in imports of test equipment (EUR 1 154), while in Malta, Cyprus and Bulgaria the value of imports was less than EUR 40 per capita. The variation in values between Member States (as measured by the relative standard deviation) was largest for diagnostic equipment. In contrast the variation in values between Member States was smallest in protective garments. Belgium also had the highest values for protective garments (EUR 226) and medical consumables (EUR 3456). The Netherlands was the Member State with the highest values for sterilization products (EUR 88) and medical devices (EUR 444). Hungary had the highest value (EUR 118) for oxygen therapy equipment. Luxembourg recorded the highest value (EUR 92) for medical vehicles and furniture.
According to the relative standard deviation, the total export of COVID-19 related products showed a higher per capita variability with respect to the import values for all the groups, with the highest values for diagnostic test equipment. Ireland had by far the highest per capita exports in diagnostic test equipment (EUR 5 889) and medical consumables (EUR 10 388) and also led in oxygen equipment (EUR 110). Germany had the highest per capita values for the export of medical vehicles and furniture (EUR 120). Belgium had the highest per capita values for protective garments (EUR 220) and sterilisation products (EUR 100), while the Netherlands was first for medical devices (EUR 640).
Among all Member States, the most imported product group was medical consumables with the highest shares in Slovenia (77 %), Belgium (65 %) and Malta (64 %) as shown in Figure 10. The shares for diagnostic equipment were highest in Croatia (24 %), Belgium, Ireland and Germany (all 22 %). Cyprus and Estonia (both 18 %) had the highest share in medical devices. Czechia (24 %) had the highest shares in protective garments. Poland, Hungary, Austria and Luxembourg (all 6 %) had the highest share in medical vehicles and furniture. Slovakia and Hungary (both 9 %) had the highest share in oxygen therapy equipment and Estonia (6 %) and Sweden (5 %) in sterilization products.
In 23 Member States, the most exported product group was medical consumables with the highest shares in Cyprus (95 %) and Greece (90 %) as shown in Figure 11. The share for diagnostic equipment was highest in Lithuania (41 %). Finland (46 %) and Estonia (41 %) had the highest shares in medical devices. Luxembourg (24 % and Slovakia (23 %) had the highest shares in protective garments. Romania, Czechia, Slovakia and Finland (all 11 %) had the highest shares in medical vehicles and furniture. Portugal (13 %) and Czechia (11 %) had the highest shares in oxygen equipment and Estonia (9 %) in sterilization products.
Germany was the largest importer of COVID-19 related products for both intra-EU and extra-EU imports (Figure 12). In all but four Member States (the Netherlands, Ireland, Slovenia and Malta) intra-EU imports were larger than extra-EU imports.
Germany was also the largest exporter of COVID-19 related products for both intra-EU and extra-EU exports (Figure 13). In all but eight Member States (Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Sweden, Slovenia, Finland, Lithuania and Cyprus) intra-EU exports were larger than extra-EU exports.
- This graph compares COVID-19 related products with products in the same chapter of the Harmonised System (HS) product classification, i.e. they are compared with other similar products that are however not directly used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It should be noted that most COVID-19 related products cannot be precisely identified and they are grouped together with products not specific to COVID-19. Nevertheless, some trends can be observed.
These products were selected based on an indicative list elaborated by the Commission in the framework of Commission Decision N° C(2020) 2146, on the basis of a joint WCO/WHO list for COVID-19 medical supplies. More information can be found in this document.
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 27 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.
The United Kingdom is considered as an extra-EU partner country for the EU-27 for the whole period covered by this article. However, the United Kingdom was still part of the internal market until the end of the transitory period (31 December 2020), meaning that data on trade with the United Kingdom are still based on statistical concepts applicable to trade between the EU Member States. Consequently, while imports from any other extra-EU-27 trade partner are grouped by country of origin, the United Kingdom data reflect the country of consignment. In practice this means that the goods imported by the EU-27 from the United Kingdom were physically transported from the United Kingdom but part of these goods could have been of other origin than the United Kingdom. For this reason, data on trade with the United Kingdom are not fully comparable with data on trade with other extra-EU-27 trade partners.
In this article some products are classified as COVID-19 related products. They are compared over time and across countries, and also to products in the same chapter of the Harmonised System (HS) product classification, i.e. they are compared to other similar products that are however not directly used in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It should be noted that most COVID-19 related products cannot be precisely identified and they are grouped together with products not specific to COVID-19. Nevertheless, some trends can be observed.
According to the EU concepts 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.
The COIVID-19 products in this article were selected based on an indicative list elaborated by the Commission in the framework of Commission Decision N° C(2020) 2146, on the basis of a joint WCO/WHO list for COVID-19 medical supplies. More information can be found in this document.
Unit of measure
Trade values are expressed in millions or billions (109) of euros. They correspond to the statistical value, i.e. to the amount which would be invoiced in the event 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 bloc 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 27 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)
- EU trade since 1988 by SITC (DS-018995)
- International trade in goods statistics - background
- International trade in goods (ESMS metadata file — ext_go_esms)
- User guide on European statistics on international trade in goods