The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has, with tragic consequences, brought to the fore the fact that the European Union (EU) is dependent on non-EU sources for medical equipment such as personal protection equipment (including masks) and artificial respiratory equipment, as well as other products needed in the fight against the virus. In response to shortages, Member States have taken initiatives to produce and distribute medical equipment and the EU has put in place a number of coordinated responses, such as the creation of the rescEU stockpile of emergency medical equipment, and the restriction of exports of personal protective equipment outside the European Union.
A mapping of EU trade in four categories of product – pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, personal protection and medical supplies – shows that, in all four categories, as few as five trade partners provide about 75 % of EU imports. Exports are more diffuse, with five partners receiving approximately half of EU exports. In 2019, the EU was a net exporter of medical products in all four categories, with pharmaceutical products representing most of its trade surplus of medical products. The weaker domain is personal protection products. The main EU import partners are Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, China, and Singapore, with the first three appearing among the top four countries in all categories. Additional insights into the value chains of chemical and pharmaceutical sector production in the EU’s top five import partners suggest that China and other countries provide a far larger share in raw materials and manufacturing than direct imports suggest. These results imply that the production of medical products is far more scattered than direct import numbers would suggest.