Traditionally, the European chemicals industry is the world leader in chemical production.
More recently, this role has come under pressure, mainly through the emergence of new markets in Asia and the development of new petrochemical sites in the Middle East. As a result, the share of the European Union in world chemical production has gone down from 32.1% in 1999 to 24% in 2009. With chemical industries from other non-EU European countries, the total share of Europe is 27.1% (compared to 34.6% in 1999).
China with its growing market has attracted many new investments, profiting from the economic boom and from the proximity to new client markets. In the petrochemical industry, significant new capacities were built and are still being built in the Middle East, profiting from cheaper access to raw materials and generous investment support. This creates significant new challenges to the European chemical industry, and efforts are needed to stay competitive.
However, this global competition also gives rise to significant opportunities. In absolute figures, the EU chemicals industry has grown in recent years and is almost back at the 2007 pre-crisis record production levels.
2010 was a very positive year for the European chemicals industry. Total sales increased to Euro 526 bln and the trade surplus grew to Euro 47 bln. The EU is a net exporter towards all foreign markets except China, with whom the EU registered a limited deficit (Euro 1.3 bln). Domestic sales went up by 16% in 2010 compared to 2009.
The first three months of 2011 have been also positive: In March 2011 sales were up 17% compared to March 2010 and the Extra-EU trade surplus was up to Euro 10.5 bln. Polymers and basic inorganics are the two subsectors that registered the most significant growth in production in 2010, (15% and 13% respectively) while petrochemicals, consumer and specialties grew between 6-8%. As a result of significant productivity gains, employment levels in the chemical industry have been going down constantly to 1.15 mln in 2010. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the chemical industry as an innovation motor for the manufacturing industry, and hence its importance for employment in Europe goes beyond its own employment figures. The importance of a healthy manufacturing sector was also shown during the last economic crisis, where countries with a strong manufacturing industry, including chemical industry, survived the crisis much better than countries relying essentially on construction or services.