In a world where the EU triangulates its relations with the world through the US in the west and China in the east, Covid-19 has pushed the bloc further towards the latter.

At the beginning of 2020, the US was the EU’s biggest trading partner; at the end of the year upended by the pandemic, China had taken its crown. 


Last year, EU-China trade volumes totalled €593.1bn, down on the €646bn record set in 2019, while EU-US trade volumes only came to €565.9bn, down from €744.1bn a year earlier, according to Eurostat figures.   

Trade volumes between the EU and China have been gradually increasing in the 1990s, only to boom in the 2000s. The years between 2000 and 2010 showed the greatest increase in trade volumes between the EU and China, as its $95.8bn trade value swelled to $395.7bn. By contrast, EU-US trade volume during the decade barely moved an inch.

Made in EU takes on the Chinese market 

As far as the EU is concerned, China is to imports what the US is to exports. The EU’s biggest export market is the US, while it imports the greatest amount of goods from China. The foundations of these trading relationships have not changed over the course of the pandemic but, delving into the data, there is the suggestion that they might not be as fixed as once thought.

In January last year, the EU had €19.8bn in imports from the US and €31.3bn in exports, while China (excluding Hong Kong) brought in imports worth €34.7bn and received EU exports worth €15.1bn. Note that the two superpowers are roughly matched in terms of their import/export figures, hovering just over €30bn month on month.

Fast-forward to December, when US exports are down 2.2% on what they were, Chinese imports are down 4%, US imports are down 20% and Chinese exports are up 32% at €19.9bn, a rather notable alteration in the EU’s external trade flows. 

For the year 2020, the EU exports to China came out at €204.3bn, down slightly on last year’s €225.1bn. To put the December 2020 export figures into context, EU exports to China for the whole of 1999 stood at roughly €19.4bn. 

Other ex-EU trading partners include Russia, Turkey and Switzerland. EU-Switzerland’s trading volume stood at €252.5bn, EU-Russia at €175.6bn and EU-Turkey at €134.1bn. Taiwan is the bloc’s 13th biggest trading partner, while Hong Kong is 24th, according to Eurostat’s figures.