The UK imported more goods from outside the EU than within it for the first time since 1997 in the three months to March as global trade makes an uneven recovery from the pandemic.
Imports from EU countries excluding precious metals rose 4.5 per cent month on month in March to £17.8bn, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday. Imports from outside the EU increased 8.4 per cent, to £19.3bn.
For the first quarter as a whole, non-EU imports totalled £53.2bn, compared with £50.6bn within Europe.
The ONS said volatility meant it was too early to assess whether this reflected short-term disruption or longer-term changes, as trade begins to recover after the disruption of Covid.
The data for March point to a partial boost for UK’s international trade, after significant falls caused both by the pandemic and Britain’s departure from the EU.
As well as the rise in imports, total exports also rose in March, up 9.3 per cent to £26.7bn. Exports were supported by demand for machinery and transport equipment linked to the car industry.
On a year-on-year basis, however, trade was still down. Total exports fell by 9.4 per cent in the first quarter compared with the same period in 2020, and imports fell by 5 per cent.
Compared with 2018, when trade was neither impacted by the early stages of the pandemic nor departure from the EU, the quarterly difference was even greater: exports fell 13.9 per cent and imports 11.7 per cent.
“Trade flows are still at least 10 per cent below pre-crisis levels,” said Ruth Gregory, senior UK economist at Capital Economics. “The slower recovery in the euro-zone and lingering Brexit effects will probably mean that exports continue [to] lag the broader recovery.”