The EU is the world’s biggest trader, accounting for 16.5% of the world's imports and exports. Free trade among its members was one of the EU's founding principles, and it is committed to liberalising world trade as well.
World trade is founded on rules laid out by the World Trade Organisation that help ensure that trade agreements and obligations between countries are open and fair.
EU trade policy is made exclusively at EU level. The Commission negotiates agreements on behalf of the EU within WTO rules and works closely with national governments and the European Parliament to maintain the global system and enable it to adapt to worldwide changes.
The EU is the world's biggest exporter of manufactured goods and services, and it is the biggest import market for over 100 countries.
It is also the world's largest single market area. Both European and international consumers and investors enjoy the many benefits of a simplified system – in an area where people, goods, services and money can move freely.
The EU negotiates agreements through its world-wide network of trade relations. It engages with a huge range of partners, mostly through free trade agreements.
These partnerships seek to create growth and jobs for Europeans by opening new markets with the rest of the world. Transatlantic markets, for example, represent transactions worth around 2 billion euros every day.
EU trade policy also aims to reduce child and forced labour, environmental destruction and price volatility. Schemes which ensure transparency and traceability in supply chains are one example.
For the world's poorest countries, EU trade policy looks to combine trade and development. Allowing lower duties, supporting small export businesses, and advising on improvements to governance are just some of the ways trade and development can work hand in hand to ensure the neediest benefit from trade-led growth.
Updated in November 2014
This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series