Trade and Investment

This is how COVID-19 and Brexit are reshaping Europe’s trading landscape

Britain's Brexit Minister David Frost chairs the first meeting of the Partnership Council with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic in London, June 9, 2021. Eddie Mulholland/Pool via REUTERS - RC2UWN9G98FS

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a strong decline in trade in the first and second quarters of 2020. Image: Reuters/Eddie Mulholland

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The bloc's main trading partners are China, the US, the UK, Switzerland and Russia.
  • China overtook the US as the EU's largest trade partner in terms of goods in the second quarter of 2021.
  • Share of imports from Switzerland increased, while imports from the UK, Russia, and the US dropped due to COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit.
  • China’s share in the EU’s exports of goods increased, while the UK’s fell.

Europe’s trading landscape is being reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit.

China overtook the US as the European Union’s largest trade partner in terms of goods in the second quarter of 2021, according to official data from Eurostat.

China’s rise in EU trade importance
China’s rise in EU trade importance Image: Eurostat

These charts show the international trade in goods of the EU since 2019, using quarterly data, and use the first quarter of 2019 as a comparison, since the COVID-19 pandemic led to a strong decline in trade in the first and second quarters of 2020.

Between the first quarter of 2019 and the most recent trade figures for the second quarter of 2021, the share of imports from China and Switzerland increased by 4.0 and 0.7 percentage points respectively.

In the same period imports from the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States dropped.

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Trading places

There wasn’t as much change in the shares of exports of goods. China's share increased while that of the UK fell more than 3 percentage points. The shares of exports to Russia, Switzerland and the US were little changed, all growing by less than 0.6 percentage points.

Biggest exports
Biggest exports Image: Eurostat

China’s growing share of imports and exports means that China overtook the US as the EU's largest trade in goods partner.

However, while the EU imported fewer goods from the US, the relationship remains very strong, particularly when services are included in the statistics.

Broader backdrop

Even so, changes that may be long-lasting are underway.

The UK will probably drop out of the list of Germany's top 10 trading partners by the end of this year, according to the BBC and based on official German data.

While the UK has been one of Germany's top 10 trading partners since 1950, Brexit-related hurdles mean it is likely to drop to the 11th spot by the end of 2021.

Brexit was a factor for the changes in the Eurostat data as well.

“The COVID-19 pandemic, and in the case of the United Kingdom also Brexit, was the contributing factor in these shifts,” Eurostat says.

“In comparison, in the period from the first quarter of 2015 to the last quarter of 2019, imports from the United Kingdom decreased by 0.7 pp, while imports from China and the United States increased by 0.1 pp and 0.8 pp respectively.”


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What’s being traded?

Imports by category
Imports by category Image: Eurostat

Machinery and vehicles represent the main category of goods imported from China, the UK and the US, according to Eurostat. Chemicals are the main category of imports from Switzerland. Energy imports from Russia fell during the pandemic, but have since recovered.

The data showed how more machinery was imported from China and less from the US and UK.

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