International trade in goods by partner
Data extracted in May-June 2017
Planned article update: November 2019
In 2016, the 3 principal destinations for goods exported from the EU were the United States, China and Switzerland.
In 2016, China was the origin for more than one fifth of the EU’s imported goods.
Globalisation patterns in EU trade and investment is an online Eurostat publication presenting a summary of recent European Union (EU) statistics on economic aspects of globalisation, focusing on patterns of EU trade and investment.
Shares in world export markets have traditionally been used as a measure of a country’s industrial competitiveness. However, with an increasing share of trade in intermediate goods (as a result of integrated supply chains and globalised production), such conventional indicators have become less informative, as high export shares might be simply related to assembly activities, whilst much greater shares of value added may be contained in other stages of production (design, marketing, logistics, after-sales). The increasing reliance on global production chains accelerated around the turn of the millennium and through to the onset of the financial and economic crisis. Nowhere was this more evident than in China, which developed into a ‘processing hub’ for Asia.
During recent decades, the share of the EU in world trade has fallen somewhat: having peaked in 2003 at 18.7 %, the EU-28’s share of world exports was subsequently reduced to 15.2 % by 2012, before recovering somewhat to 15.5 % in 2015. Rapid changes in the composition of global trade since the new millennium may be associated, among others, with the adhesion of China to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which took place in December 2001, as well as the establishment and expansion of a broad range of global trade agreements designed to encourage increased levels of free-trade (for example, ASEAN, COMESA, Mercosur or NAFTA). This article looks at the development of the EU’s trading relationships with some of its most important trade partners.
Focus on EU-28 trade in goods - an overview
In 2016, the three principal destinations for goods exported from the EU-28 were the United States, China and Switzerland
Extra-EU trade flows (imports plus exports) for the whole of the EU-28 were valued at EUR 3 453 billion in 2016, 1.9 times as high as in 2002. Although a majority of the EU’s trade takes place within the single market (in the form of intra-EU trade flows), the share that originates in or is destined for non-member countries has increased over time, rising from 32.8 % of the total in 2002 to 36.0 % by 2016.
In 2016, the principal destinations for goods exported from the EU-28 included the United States, China, Switzerland, Turkey, Russia, Japan and Norway. The list of the EU’s top 10 export markets for goods was completed by the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and India (see Map 1).
A ranking of the principal origins of goods imported into the EU-28 was composed of a similar list of countries. Indeed, the only partner that was not present (compared with the list for EU-28 exports) was the United Arab Emirates, while Brazil featured among the top 10 import partners (it did not feature among the principal export markets). A closer analysis reveals that China was the EU’s principal partner for imported goods in 2016, followed by the United States and Switzerland, while Russia and Turkey swapped positions (compared with the situation for EU-28 exports). The remainder of the ranking for goods imported into the EU-28 was composed of Japan, Norway, South Korea, India and Brazil (see Map 2).
In 2016, China was the origin for more than one fifth of the EU-28’s imported goods
An analysis over time reveals that more than one quarter (28.0 %) of EU-28 exported goods were destined for the United States in 2002, a share that had fallen to just over one fifth (20.8 %) by 2016, although the United States remained the principal export market for EU-28 goods. During the same period, China moved from being the EU’s fourth largest export market to become its second largest (see Figure 1).
On the import side, the share of EU-28 imports originating in China increased from less than one tenth (9.6 %) of the total in 2002 to more than one fifth (20.2 %) by 2016. By 2005, China had overtaken the United States as the EU’s main origin of imports and by 2016 the value of EU-28 imports originating from China was almost two fifths (39.2 %) higher than the value of imports from the United States (see Figure 2).
The EU-28 ran a trade deficit for goods with China of EUR 175 billion in 2016 (slightly down from a peak of EUR 180 billion in the previous year); it also had a sizeable trade deficit with Russia (EUR 46 billion) and smaller deficits with Norway (EUR 15 billion) and Japan (EUR 8 billion). By contrast, among some of its principal trading partners, the EU-28 recorded trade surpluses with the United States (EUR 115 billion), the United Arab Emirates (EUR 37 billion), Switzerland (EUR 21 billion) and Turkey (EUR 11 billion).
Realignment of the EU’s principal partners for trade in goods towards emerging economies
While absolute figures show that EU-28 trade in goods is relatively concentrated with respect to its principal partners, there has been a considerable realignment of the EU’s trading relationships in recent years, with a shift in bilateral trading relationships towards emerging economies, while trade flows with traditional partners tended to develop at a much slower pace. Emerging economies have captured an increasing share of global trade which has often stimulated their domestic economic growth, sometimes leading to the emergence or expansion of a middle class, while removing parts of their populations from the risk of poverty.
On the export side, the most rapid growth for EU-28 trade concerned an expansion in the value of goods destined for China (which grew almost fivefold between 2002 and 2016), while the value of EU-28 exports to Argentina, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt more than trebled. By contrast, EU-28 imports of goods that originated in China grew by 281 % between 2002 and 2016, while imports from the United Arab Emirates and Mexico also increased more than threefold. There was also a marked increase in the value of trade with and a range of other emerging economies, notably, Turkey, Morocco and India.
The pace of growth was generally much slower for the EU’s more traditional trading partners and developed world economies (see Figure 3). This was particularly true for Japan and the United States, which recorded some of the lowest rates of change; indeed, the value of EU-28 goods imported from Japan fell by 10.0 % between 2002 and 2016, the only partner (among those selected) to record a contraction; nevertheless Japan was the origin of the sixth highest level of imports into the EU-28 in 2016.
Focus on EU-28 trade in goods for selected partners
The following section presents information for the EU’s three principal trading partners (as of 2016), namely: the United States, China and Switzerland.
The United States has consistently been the EU’s leading trade partner
Based on an analysis of the total value of trade in goods (in other words, the sum of exports and imports), the United States is the EU-28’s principal trade partner and this pattern has been repeated each year from 2002 onwards (when a complete dataset was first available).
In recent years, EU-28 exports destined for the United States have grown at a faster pace than the value of EU-28 imports that originated from the United States; after the shock of the global financial and economic crisis, the EU-28 trade surplus with the United States expanded from EUR 49 billion in 2009 to a reach a peak of EUR 122 billion in 2015, before falling to EUR 115 billion in 2016. More than one fifth (20.8 %) of the EU’s exports to non-member countries were destined for the United States in 2016, while EU-28 imports originating in the United States accounted for 14.5 % of all EU-28 imports (see Figures 1, 2 and 4).
Machinery and transport equipment were the most commonly traded products between the EU-28 and the United States, both in terms of export and import flows (see Figure 5). These goods made up almost identical shares of the EU-28’s total imports and exports: machinery and transport equipment accounted for 44.4 % (EUR 110 billion) of EU-28 goods that were imported from the United States, while their share of EU-28 exports destined for the United States was 44.7 % (EUR 162 billion).
EU-28 trade with China is heavily skewed in favour of Chinese imports
Figure 6 shows the EU-28 ran a sizeable trade deficit with China throughout the period from 2002 to 2016. In 2007, the value of EU-28 imported goods that originated from China peaked at 3.3 times as high as the value of EU-28 exports that were destined for China. The trade position with China was rebalanced somewhat thereafter, with faster growth for EU-28 exports. Nevertheless, the EU-28 had a trade deficit with China for goods that amounted to EUR 175 billion in 2016.
Machinery and transport equipment accounted for just over half (50.4 % or EUR 174 billion) of all goods imported into the EU-28 from China in 2016, while the vast majority of the remaining imports were classified as other manufactured goods (42.1 % or EUR 145 billion). Turning attention to EU-28 exports destined for China, machinery and equipment also represented more than half (54.5 % or EUR 93 billion) of the total in 2016, while the remaining exports were more evenly spread; other manufactured goods (17.3 % or EUR 29 billion) and chemicals and related products (12.9 % or EUR 22 billion) were the only product groups to record double-digit shares (see Figure 7).
The EU-28 imports a high value of chemicals from Switzerland
Switzerland’s economic and trade relations with the EU are mainly governed through a series of bilateral agreements. Within these, Switzerland agrees to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for having access to the EU’s single market. As noted above, Switzerland is the EU’s third largest trade partner, while the EU-28 is Switzerland’s main trading partner.
Between 2003 and 2008, the development of trade between the EU-28 and Switzerland rose at a steady pace for both exports and imports (see Figure 8). There was a marked downturn (-11.8 %) in the value of EU-28 exports to Switzerland in 2009, although this was followed by a rapid expansion through to a relative peak in 2013, with irregular developments thereafter. The level of EU-28 imports from Switzerland tended to follow a more regular pattern, although there was an 18.9 % increase in the value of imports in 2016. With falling exports and a sharp rise in the value of imports, the EU-28’s trade surplus with Switzerland stood at EUR 21 billion in 2016, which was less than one third of its level (EUR 75 billion) from 2013.
Looking in more detail at the structure of EU-28 trade with Switzerland in 2016, the majority of trade concerned chemicals and related products, machinery and transport equipment, and other manufactured goods. The highest value of EU-28 exports to Switzerland was recorded for other manufactured goods (EUR 44 billion), followed by machinery and transport equipment (EUR 34 billion) and chemicals and related products (EUR 31 billion). On the imports side, the highest value of goods imported into the EU-28 that originated from Switzerland was for chemicals and related products (EUR 42 billion), followed by other manufactured products (EUR 30 billion) and machinery and transport equipment (EUR 20 billion). Combining these latest data for 2016, the EU-28 ran sizeable trade surpluses with Switzerland for machinery and transport equipment (EUR 15 billion) and for other manufactured goods (EUR 14 billion), whereas it had a deficit of EUR 11 billion for chemicals and related products (see Figure 9).
Focus on trade in goods for individual EU Member States
Having analysed extra-EU trade developments for some of the EU-28’s main trading partners, this next section identifies the leading trade partners for individual EU Member States (considering both intra-EU and extra-EU partners), detailing the four principal trade partners for both exports (see Figure 10) and imports (see Figure 11).
In 2016, 16 of the EU Member States reported that Germany was their largest export market for goods …
In 2016, Germany was among the four most important export markets (in value terms) for all but two of the (other) EU Member States, the exceptions being Estonia and Cyprus. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Germany has the highest number of inhabitants in the EU and is also located relatively centrally. Germany occupied the position of the leading export partner for 16 of the Member States and when this was not the case, the 11 exceptions were all located around the periphery of the EU — the Baltic Member States; Ireland and the United Kingdom; Spain and Portugal; Greece, Croatia, Cyprus and Malta. The United States was the leading market for goods exported from Germany, Ireland, Malta and the United Kingdom.
… while Germany was the main origin of imported goods into 18 of the EU Member States
Germany was also the main origin of imported goods for 18 of the EU Member States in 2016, while Germany featured among the top four import partners for each of the remaining Member States; note that the highest share of German imported goods originated from the Netherlands. In those cases where Germany was not the leading import partner, this position was usually occupied by a (neighbouring) country within close geographic proximity — for example, the United Kingdom was the main origin of Irish imports, Spain was the main origin of Portuguese imports, or Lithuania was the main origin of Latvian imports.
In 2016, seven EU Member States recorded their largest trade surplus for goods with the United Kingdom
Tables 1 and 2 provide a similar set of information but focus instead on the largest trade surpluses and trade deficits for each of the EU Member States. In 2016, a small majority (16) of the Member States recorded their largest bilateral trade surpluses for goods with another Member State; in seven of these cases, the United Kingdom was the partner. There were 10 Member States where the largest trade surplus was recorded with the United States as a partner. This left two exceptions, namely, Latvia (whose largest trade surplus was with Russia) and the United Kingdom (whose largest trade surplus was with the United Arab Emirates).
Box 2.2 — The ‘Rotterdam effect’
Extra-EU imports and exports are reported by the EU Member State according to where the customs declaration is lodged, usually this is the place where the goods cross the EU’s external frontier (their point of entry/exit).
The geographical allocation of extra-EU flows is therefore biased insofar as the entry/exit Member State is not the actual importing/exporting Member State. This issue particularly impacts on the transhipment of extra-EU imports into some of the EU’s leading ports such as Rotterdam (in the Netherlands) or Antwerp (in Belgium). As such, the trade flows of some Member States may be over- or underestimated due to the so-called ‘Rotterdam effect’ (quasi-transit trade). For example, goods which arrive in Dutch (or to a lesser degree Belgian) ports, but which are bound for other EU Member States, should according to EU rules be recorded as extra-EU imports in the Netherlands (or Belgium), where they may be released for free circulation around the single market. This phenomenon in turn increases intra-EU trade flows between the Netherlands (and Belgium) and those Member States where the goods ultimately arrive.
At an aggregate level, the EU-28’s largest trade deficit for goods in 2016 was recorded with China. This pattern was repeated in seven of the individual EU Member States, while there were an additional 13 Member States where China occupied either second, third or fourth position in a ranking of trade deficits by bilateral trading partner. There were 11 Member States where the largest trade deficit was recorded with Germany, of these only Denmark, France and Austria shared a border. The largest deficits in Belgium and Germany were recorded in relation to the trading of goods with the Netherlands, which also featured in second, third or fourth position for an additional 15 Member States; this may at least in part, reflect the dominant position of Rotterdam as the EU’s leading maritime port, acting as an entry point into the EU’s single market for a wide range of goods from the rest of the world.
The fastest growth rates for intra-EU trade were recorded among those Member States that joined the EU in 2004 or later …
The article International trade in goods for the EU - an overview already provided evidence that a majority of the EU-28’s trade in goods takes places within the single market, even if the share of intra-EU trade in total trade declined somewhat between 2002 and 2016 to just less than two thirds (64.0 %). As EU membership grew during successive enlargements, the size of the single market increased and with it the stature of the EU as a trading bloc. On the other hand, successive enlargements of the EU also reduced the number of non-member trading partners across the rest of world. Note that the statistics presented in this publication have been standardised to present consistent aggregates for the whole of the EU-28 throughout the time period under consideration (generally from 2002 to 2016).
The highest growth rates for the overall change in the value of intra-EU imports and exports between 2002 and 2016 were almost systematically recorded among those Member States that joined the EU in 2004 or more recently; the only exception was Malta where such growth was subdued. Figure 12 provides confirmation that most of these Member States had a relatively high share of their trade with other Member States (compared with non-member partners) and that this share increased between 2002 and 2016.
Source data for tables and graphs
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators
- International trade in goods - aggregated data
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators
- International trade in goods - detailed data
- International trade in goods (ESMS metadata file — ext_go_agg_esms)