Trade Development

EU27 chemicals trade surplus reaches a lower level in 2021

Extra-EU27 chemicals trade balance

Trading chemicals around the world stimulates competition, provides incentive to develop new markets through innovation and stimulates production efficiency. Above all, it helps to improve the quality of human life.

A historically important player in the global chemical market, the EU27 chemical industry continues to benefit from trade opportunities and has generated on average a significant trade surplus of more than €40 billion over the past 10 years.

Open competition and open markets would help generate more trade and benefits for all partners and citizens. Trade agreements with key partners will enable our industry to enhance efficiency and better use our technical strengths.

Data on 2021 shows a strong increase in both exports and imports. However, imports increased faster than exports compared to 2020. As a consequence, the EU27 chemicals trade surplus with the rest of the world fell significantly from €40.4 billion in 2020 to €36.1 billion in 2021. This is the fourth yearly consecutive decline in row since 2017. A lost of EU27 trade competitiveness during the past five years is more than evident.

Specialty chemicals contribute most to EU27 chemicals trade

Extra-EU27 chemicals trade flows by sector

EU27 chemical industry exports reached €198.5 billion in 2021. Specialty chemicals is the largest exporting sector, accounting for 31% of total EU27 chemical exports. Petrochemicals was the second largest exporting sector, contributing 24% of total EU27 chemical exports, followed by consumer chemicals (19%) and polymers (17%). With 9%, basic inorganics was the smallest exporting sector.

EU27 chemical imports from the non-EU27 area reached €162.4 billion in 2021. Petrochemicals was the largest chemicals importer in 2021 (37%), followed by specialty chemicals and polymers, contributing 27% and 19% respectively. Basic inorganics accounted for 12% of total imports and, with 5%, consumer chemicals were the smallest importing sector.

Trade analysis indicates that the EU27 chemical sector recorded a trade surplus in 2020 for specialty chemicals, consumer chemicals and polymers; however, basic inorganics and petrochemicals experienced a trade deficit in the same year.

The chemical industry depends on free trade and open markets, both for its raw materials and as outlets for its products. The industry relies increasingly on tightly interconnected clusters that participate in global value chains.

Top 10 EU27 partners account for more than 2/3 of extra-eu27 chemicals trade

EU27 chemicals trade* flows with top 10 partners (2021)

Extra-EU27 chemicals trade flow, calculated as total exports plus imports, was valued at nearly €361 billion in 2021. The top 10 EU27 partners accounted for about 70% of extra-EU27 chemicals trade in the same year.

USA was again the EU27’s biggest trading partner for chemicals in 2021. USA bought €32.6 billion of EU27 exports, whilst accounting €25.7 billion of EU27 imports. USA was responsible for 16.1% of total EU27 chemicals trade in 2021. Transatlantic trade flows are expected to change considerably in the coming years because the US shale gas boom has triggered a massive build-up of new US chemicals production capacity.

The UK was the EU27’s second largest trading partner in chemicals in 2021. It bought €26.0 billion of EU27 exports, whilst accounting for €18.1 billion of EU27 imports. It contributed 12.2% of total EU27 chemicals trade in 2021.

China is the EU27’s third largest chemicals trading partner, accounting for 11.3% of EU27 chemicals trade. China has become the most important growth market for global chemical companies and a major investment location. While Chinese chemical companies are gradually increasing their focus on specialty chemicals, the country will remain a major importer of commodity chemicals for some time to come. Chinese expansion does not necessarily imply Europe loses out; rather, there are wins for both, and China offers many opportunities.

EU27 holds trade surplus with top competing markets

EU27 chemicals trade flows with major geographic blocs (2021)

A look at the 2021 EU chemicals trade balance with key countries and regions shows:

Apart from China and Japan, the European Union has a trade surplus with all main trading regions – NAFTA, Latin America, Africa, and rest of Europe. The two major geographic blocs trading with the European Union in 2021 remained the rest of Europe (including UK) and North America.

The EU 27 generated its largest chemicals trade surplus with the rest of Europe, which covers UK, Turkey, Switzerland, Russia, Norway and Ukraine. The EU27 surplus with the rest of Europe amounted to €15.9 billion in 2021.

Consumer chemicals and specialties contribute most to EU27 chemicals trade surplus

Extra-EU27 chemicals trade balance by sector

FactsandFigures2023_ch2_5_Extra-EU27 chemicals trade balance by sector_without titel

The EU27 chemicals trade surplus in 2021 reached €36.1 billion. 63% of the trade surplus can be attributed to consumer chemicals.

Consumer chemicals generated the largest EU27 trade surplus compared to the other chemical sectors. Specialty chemicals had the second strongest external trade performance, followed by polymers.

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