Extra-EU trade in primary goods

Data from March 2019

Planned update May 2020

In trade between the EU and non-Member States, primary goods made up 15 % of all EU exports and 31 % of EU imports in 2018.

The United States was the main EU trading partner for food and drink among the non-EU Member States in 2018.

The major energy provider in 2018 for the EU was Russia (28 % of total imports), while the major providers of raw materials were the United States (14 % of total imports) and Brazil (12 % of total imports) .

EU-28 trade in primary goods, 2008-2018 (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 2018 the EU exported EUR 287 billion of primary goods to countries outside the EU and imported EUR 608 billion of primary goods (see Figure 1). Compared with 2008, exports increased by EUR 102 billion, while imports decreased by EUR 9 billion. Thus the trade deficit was reduced by EUR 111 billion from EUR 432 billion in 2008 to EUR 321 billion in 2018.

Figure 1: EU-28 trade in primary goods, 2008-2018
(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 15 % in 2018 (see 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 2013 and had a minimum of 26 % in 2016, before rising to 31 % in 2018. 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, 2008-2018
Source: Eurostat (TET00062)

Exports of primary products consisted of 42 % of food and drink, followed by 40 % of energy and 18 % of raw materials (see Figure 3) in 2018. In imports of primary products the share for energy was 68 %, followed by 19 % for food and drink and 13 % for raw materials. There was a small trade surplus of EUR 9 billion for food and drink. In raw materials there was a trade deficit of EUR 31 billion, but the largest deficit, EUR 299 billion, was for energy products.

Figure 3: Export and imports of primary goods by main groups, 2018
(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: the United States main destination for EU exports

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 (see 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, 2008-2018
(EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00034)

The United States was the main destination for EU exports of food and drink with a 16 % share (see Figure 5). It was followed by China, Switzerland, Japan, Russia and Norway. The two largest suppliers of EU imports were Brazil and the United States each with a 8 % share. They were followed by Norway (6 %), China and Argentina (both 5 %) and Turkey (4%).

Figure 5: EU-28 main trade partners in food and drink, 2018
(% 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: EU imports most from the United States and Brazil

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 had 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 2018 (see 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 31 billion in 2018.

Figure 6: EU-28 trade in raw materials, 2008-2018
(EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00033)

China, with 21 %, was the largest export destination of raw materials from the EU, followed by Turkey and the United States who each have a share of 10 % (see Figure 7). EU imports of raw materials came mainly from the United States and Brazil with 14 % and 12 % respectively. The next four partners for EU imports were Russia, Ukraine, Canada (all 6 %) and Indonesia (5 %) were the other main exporters. The main six countries accounted for 48 % of EU imports.

Figure 7: EU-28 main trade partners in raw materials, 2018
(% 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 partner for EU imports of energy

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 (see Figure 8). The value of imports closely followed the price of crude oil which explains the decline of the trade deficit in between 2012 and 2016 when it reached EUR 189 billion. However in 2018 it had increased to EUR 299 billion.

Figure 8: EU-28 trade in energy products, 2008-2018
(EUR billion)
Source: Eurostat (TET00032)

The major providers for EU imports of energy were Russia (28 % of the imports in 2018) and Norway (12 %) (see Figure 9). They were followed by Saudi Arabia and the United States (both 6 %), Norway and Algeria (both 5 %). The combined share of the top 6 is 62 %. The United States was the main destination of EU exports of energy products (13 %), followed by Nigeria (6 %) China and Switzerland were the third and fourth largest exports destinations (both with 5 %) 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, 2018
(% 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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