April’s trade figures fact checked

18 June 2021
What was claimed

The deficit in trade with the EU has narrowed by £4.4 billion to £3.2 billion.

Our verdict

The trade deficit with the whole world, not just the EU, fell to £3.2 billion in the three months to April 2021.

What was claimed

British exports are up while EU imports are down.

Our verdict

This is correct for goods. Data on services for April 2021 is not yet available.

What was claimed

British companies sold £12.9 billion worth of goods to the EU, ten per cent up on pre-Brexit figures.

Our verdict

£12.9 billion is correct, but the 10% rise claim is against summer 2020 and doesn’t reflect the wider trend. Exports to the EU are down compared to the period before Brexit.

What was claimed

Imports from the rest of the world rose to £20.1 billion, their highest since records began in 1997.

Our verdict

£20.1 billion is the highest cash amount of imports from the rest of the world in any given month, but imports were higher than this, when adjusted for inflation, for large parts of the late 2010s.

What was claimed

We are selling more to our global partners - £13.6 billion - than to the EU.

Our verdict

It’s correct that in April 2021 the UK exported more goods to non-EU countries (£13.6 billion) than to EU countries (£12.9 billion).

A column in the Daily Express makes a number of claims about the latest trade data published by the Office for National Statistics. 

A few of the claims could use more context. 

“The deficit in trade with the EU has narrowed by £4.4billion to £3.2billion showing that British exports are up while EU imports are down.”

The figures in the Express refer to the UK’s trade deficit (how much more we import than export), excluding precious metals, with the whole world in the three months to April 2021, not just the trade deficit with the EU.

This data includes both trade in goods and services. 

For April 2021, data on trade with the EU specifically is only available for goods, and not for services, so we don’t yet know the total trade deficit for the EU for April. 

However, for goods only (excluding precious metals), it is correct that EU exports rose and EU imports fell in the three months to April 2021, compared to the three months to January 2021.

“In total, British companies sold £12.9billion worth of goods to the EU, ten per cent up on pre-Brexit figures, according to the Office for National Statistics.”

It’s correct that exports from Britain to the EU, excluding precious metals, were valued at £12.9 billion in April 2021.

As for the claim that exports were up 10% on pre-Brexit figures, the Express confirmed to Full Fact this was sourced from a Daily Telegraph article which looked at the change from the period “before pre-Brexit stockpiling began to skew figures at the end of last year.” 

This refers to stockpiling which took place prior to the end of the transition period specifically rather than any other part of the Brexit process.

Exports did increase 10% between July 2020 and April 2021, but, as the ONS notes, trade volumes are incredibly volatile at the moment and these figures don’t entirely represent the wider picture. 

Exports fell considerably in spring 2020 as the pandemic took hold, before rebounding through the latter half of the year, partly influenced by stockpiling mentioned. They then fell again in January 2021, partly due to disruption associated with the end of the transition period, before rebounding again.

Also, exports in April 2021 are down on the period before the pandemic started, and on the period before Brexit actually happened in January 2020.

All but one month from January 2017 to the start of the pandemic saw the UK export more goods to the EU than in April 2021. 

“In contrast imports from the rest of the world are replacing EU imports, rising to £20.1 billion, their highest since records began in 1997. At the same time we are selling more to our global partners - £13.6 billion - than to the EU.”

It’s correct that the UK is exporting more goods to non-EU countries (£13.6 billion excluding precious metals) than EU countries (£12.9 billion). 

It’s also correct that the UK imported £20.1 billion of goods (excluding precious metals) from non-EU countries in April, which was technically the highest level recorded.

But these figures represent cash values, and the value of money has decreased over time (inflation). Non-EU imports were higher during large periods of the late 2010s, once adjusted for inflation.

The long view

Trade data can move quite a lot from month to month and as we’ve said is especially volatile given the effects of the pandemic, and the end of the transition period. 

Therefore, it’s worth considering longer trends in trade data alongside month-to-month changes. 

Since the mid-2010s the UK’s balance of trade (exports minus imports) for goods and services combined has grown, with the balance even turning positive for a few months, meaning we exported more than we imported. 

There have been big swings in recent quarters, but, overall, it appears as if exports are catching up with imports. 

Looking back over this period at trade with the EU specifically, the balance is negative (we import more than we export) and reached a low in 2019 after many years of going down, but did increase in 2020. The UK is a net importer of goods from the EU but a net exporter of services

Over the past decade, exports of goods to non-EU countries have grown more overall than exports to EU countries.

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