International trade in medicinal and pharmaceutical products
Data from March 2021
Planned update March 2022
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.
An increasing trade surplus
Figure 1 shows that extra-EU exports and imports in medicinal and pharmaceutical (shortened to medicinal in the rest of the article) products grew almost every year between 2002 and 2020, reaching EUR 215 billion and EUR 93 billion respectively in 2020. Even the financial crisis, which affected trade in many other products, did not cause a fall in exports or imports. With exports growing more than imports, the trade surplus grew from EUR 18 billion in 2002 to a record high of EUR 122 billion in 2020.
Between 2002 and 2008 the share of medicinal and pharmaceutical products in total extra-EU trade remained fairly stable (Figure 2). In 2009, the share of imports increased by 1.3 percentage points (pp) and exports by 1.6 pp. This was not caused by an increase in trade in medicinal products but rather by the decline in total trade. Since 2009, the shares have been fluctuating but there is a clear overall growth. Between 2002 and 2019, the share for imports has grown from 3.4 % to 4.8 % while the share for exports has grown from 5.0 % to 9.5 %. In 2020 there was considerable increase in the share for imports which rose to 5.4 % and especially exports which rose to 11.1 %.
The exports and imports of medicinal and pharmaceutical products grew for almost every Member State in 2020 (Figure 3a), a development in contrast with total trade which fell in most Member States due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Slovenia had the largest increase of imports in medicinal products (+31 %) and the second largest increase in exports (+42 %). Greece registered the largest increase in exports of medicinal products. The details for total trade can be seen in Figure 3b.
United States and Switzerland remain the top EU partners
The United States stands out as the EU’s main trading partner for medicinal and pharmaceutical products in 2020 (Figure 4). Exports to the United States (34 %) are more than a third of all EU exports and are followed at some distance by Switzerland (12 %) and the United Kingdom (8 %). Imports to the EU are dominated even more by Switzerland (35 %) and the United States (28 %). Because the United States and Switzerland are the two largest trade partners, the development of their trade in medicinal and pharmaceutical products with the EU is shown in Figures 4 and 5.
Trade with the United States between 2002 and 2020
Figure 5 shows the development of trade in medicinal products between the EU and the United States from 2002 to 2020. In this period, exports grew by EUR 59 billion, falling only in 2008 and 2013. Since 2017, there was an exceptionally high increase of EUR 32 billion, accounting for over half of the growth in the whole period. Between 2002 and 2020, imports grew by EUR 15 billion. Measured as average annual growth over the period 2002 to 2020, exports grew by 9.1 % per year and imports grew by 4.9 % per year. During the whole period the EU has had a trade surplus with the United States, peaking at EUR 48 billion in 2020.
Trade with Switzerland between 2002 and 2020
Figure 6 shows the development of trade in medicinal products between the EU and Switzerland from 2002 to 2020. In this period, exports grew by EUR 21 billion, which was EUR 38 billion less than the export growth for the United States. Imports in this period grew by EUR 23 billion, which was EUR 8 billion more than the increase of imports from the United States. Measured as average annual growth, exports grew by 8.9 % per year, while imports grew by 7.5 % per year. During the whole period, the EU had a trade deficit with Switzerland, peaking at EUR 8 billion in 2009, 2012 and 2019 but falling to EUR 5 billion in 2020.
Trade in medicinal products by Member State
The share of intra EU exports in total (intra + extra) exports of medicinal products varies greatly between Member States in 2020 (Figure 7). For Luxembourg, Malta and Slovakia it was above 85 %, while for Sweden, Slovenia and Denmark it was below 40 %. The average for the EU was 47 %.
The share of intra EU imports in total (intra + extra) imports of medicinal products (Figure 8) varies even more than for exports. For Luxembourg, Lithuania and Estonia it was above 95 %, while for Slovenia and Malta it was below 40 %. The average for the EU was 67 %.
Table 1 shows that, amongst the EU Member States, Germany had the highest exports (EUR 49 billion) followed at some distance by Ireland (EUR 35 billion), Belgium (EUR 31 billion), the Netherlands (EUR 22 billion), France (EUR 17 billion), and Italy (EUR 15 billion). Four countries had shares higher than 20 % for medicinal products in their total extra-EU exports. These were Slovenia (39 %), Ireland (37 %), Denmark (29 %) and Belgium (24 %).
Germany, the Netherlands (both EUR 18 billion) and Belgium (EUR 17 billion) were the largest importers of medicinal products in 2020. In 2020, Slovenia had the highest share for medicinal products in its total extra-EU imports with 26 %.
Germany (EUR 31 billion and Ireland (EUR 29 billion) had the largest trade surpluses for medicinal products in 2020.
Source data for tables and graphs
A code (such as ‘DS_018995’) is inserted as part of the source. This code allows the reader to easily access the most recent EU data on the Eurostat website. Note that data on the website is frequently updated and may also be more detailed or have a different measurement unit. It should also be noted that European statistics on international trade in goods are compiled according to the EU concepts and definitions and may, therefore, differ from national data published by Member States.
Division 54 'Medicinal and pharmaceutical products' of the Standard international trade classification revision 4 (SITC Rev. 4), is made up of the sub-groups:
- 5411 ‘Provitamins and vitamins (not put up as medicaments)’;
- 5413 ‘Antibiotics (not put up as medicaments)’;
- 5414 ‘Vegetable alkaloids (not put up as medicaments)’;
- 5415 ‘Hormones, prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes’;
- 5416 ‘Glycosides; glands or other organs; antisera, vaccines;
- 5419 ‘Pharmaceutical goods, other than medicaments’;
- 5421 ‘Medicaments containing antibiotics’;
- 5422 ‘Medicaments containing hormones, etc., but not antibiotics’;
- 5423 ‘Medicaments containing alkaloids, but not containing hormones etc. or antibiotics’;
- 5429 ‘Medicaments not elsewhere specified’.
Unit of measure
Trade values are expressed in millions (106) 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.
A bias in the geographical allocation of extra-EU flows
Extra-EU imports and exports are reported by the Member State where the customs declaration is lodged, usually the place where the goods cross the EU external frontier (here referred to as the exit/entry Member State). This is not necessarily the Member State of actual import or export. The geographical allocation of an extra-EU flow is biased in the case where the entry/exit Member State is not the actual importing/exporting Member State. In such a case, the extra-EU trade will be allocated to the entry/exit Member State and the actual importing/exporting Member State will report only intra-EU flows with the exit/entry Member State. This issue particularly impacts the extra-EU imports of Member States having important ports for transhipment of goods like Antwerp in Belgium and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. This is why it is known as the ‘Rotterdam effect’.
The United Kingdom is considered as an extra-EU partner country for the EU 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 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 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 trade partners.
Pharmaceutical products are among the most important products within the chemicals sector (SITC section 5). Today, the pharmaceutical sector is extensively regulated at EU level in the dual interest of ensuring the highest possible level of public health and patient confidence in safe, effective and high-quality medicinal products, while continuing to develop a single EU market for pharmaceuticals in order to strengthen the European pharmaceutical industry's competitiveness and research capability.
The most common trade impediments faced by pharmaceutical exporters are a range of burdensome and costly registration, licensing and certification procedures. The EU aims to redress these through its bilateral trade agreements or by tackling individual barriers as part of its market access partnership.
Direct access to
- International trade data (t_ext)
- International trade long-term indicators (t_ext_lti)
- International trade short-term indicators (t_ext_sti)
- International trade data (ext)
- International trade long-term indicators (ext_lti)
- International trade short-term indicators (ext_sti)
- International trade 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
- Regulation (EC) No 471/2009 of 6 May 2009 on Community statistics relating to external trade with non-member countries
- Summaries of EU Legislation: Extrastat: statistics relating to trade with non-EU countries
- Regulation (EU) No 92/2010 of 2 February 2010 implementing Regulation (EC) No 471/2009, as regards data exchange between customs authorities and national statistical authorities, compilation of statistics and quality assessment
- Regulation (EU) No 113/2010 of 9 February 2010 implementing Regulation (EC) No 471/2009 , as regards trade coverage, definition of the data, compilation of statistics on trade by business characteristics and by invoicing currency, and specific goods or movements.
- Dutch and Belgian imports can be overestimated due to the so-called "Rotterdam effect" (See section Data sources for more details)