In a world of increasing globalisation, where political, economic and technological barriers are rapidly disappearing, the ability of a country to participate in global activity is an important indicator of its performance and competitiveness.

In order to remain competitive, modern day business relationships extend well beyond the traditional foreign exchange of goods and services, as witnessed by the increasing reliance of firms on mergers, partnerships, joint ventures, licensing agreements, and other forms of business cooperation. External trade may be complemented or substituted by producing (and often selling) goods and services in countries other than where an enterprise was first established: this approach is known as foreign direct investment (FDI), whereby the enterprise concerned either invests to establish a new plant/office, or alternatively, purchases existing assets of a foreign enterprise. FDI is a type of international investment where an entity that is resident in one economy (the direct investor) acquires a lasting interest (at least 10 % of the voting power) in an enterprise operating in another economy.

Conventional trade is less important for services than for goods and while trade in services has been growing, the share of services in total intra-EU trade has changed little during the last decade. However, FDI is expanding more rapidly for services than for goods, as FDI in services has increased at a more rapid pace than conventional trade in services. As a result, the share of services in total FDI flows and positions has increased substantially, with European services becoming increasingly international.

The balance of payments is a statistical statement that summarises the transactions of an economy with the rest of the world. Transactions are organized in two different accounts, the current account and the capital and financial account, whose sum, in principle, should be zero, as for each credit transaction there is a corresponding one on the debit side. Thus, the current account balance determines the exposure of an economy vis-à-vis the rest of the world, whereas the capital and financial account explains how it is financed.