After President Trump called NATO “obsolete” and criticized the European Union during an interview one week ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a defiant response: “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands,” she said. Merkel implied that Europe doesn't need American backing to hold its own on the world stage. But a closer look at transatlantic trade, military cooperation and lobbying shows the “old continent” still heavily relies on the U.S. — perhaps more so than some Europeans, including Merkel, are willing to admit.
Europeans who argue that a U.S.-Europe split wouldn't make much of a difference often point to the number of American soldiers based in Europe. The ranks of American active-duty personnel there have decreased from almost 400,000 in 1953 to about 65,000 today.
Much of that decrease occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. American troops had stayed in Europe following the end of World War II to ensure stability in Europe and counter the Soviet Union. With the USSR's collapse, many U.S. soldiers were no longer needed. Most Americans based on the continent are located in Germany, where the U.S.' European Command is headquartered. But in Germany and other E.U. countries, American soldiers are now far outnumbered by their host countries' own troops. So does Europe really rely on NATO without being willing to pay its share, as President Trump has claimed? Some E.U. members have indeed paid less than demanded by NATO — the alliance asks each member nation to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense — in the past. Some continue to do so.
But a number of European nations, including Germany and France, have recently announced plans to boost defense budgets and to contribute more. That rethink started before Trump became president and is unrelated to his most recent criticism of the military alliance. Merkel, for instance, announced last spring that she wanted to increase the country's annual defense budget by $27 billion over the next three years. That would almost double the current budget — but it would still be dwarfed by the $664 billion the U.S. spends every year.
The E.U.'s economy has also grown closer and closer to the United States. The U.S. and the E.U. are each the other's largest trading partner, and total trade between the two has increased by 50 percent during the last decade. Although President Trump likely will not pursue plans to pass a transatlantic free-trade agreement, the transatlantic economy is already tightly knit. Closer economic ties are also behind a growing U.S. interest in having more sway over European laws. According to E.U. Integrity Watch, an NGO that monitors decision-makers in Brussels, American companies are among the top lobbyists there. Their influence on the European Commission has come under particular scrutiny because the commission is solely responsible for draft legislation that applies to all 28 member states. Since December 2014, American companies have held more meetings with members of the European Commission than did organizations from some of the union's biggest members, including France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. Most of the American companies investing in lobbying efforts in Brussels are banks like Goldman Sachs or Silicon Valley corporations such as Google and Microsoft.
Some of those American lobbyists will feel quite at home in Europe, anyway. In certain countries, more than 80 percent of all films aired on TV are American. Eastern Europe has a particularly big share of U.S. productions. Only every 10th film broadcast in Romania is not American. France, to the contrary, has long resisted U.S. cultural influence. For decades, the French government has supported its own film industry with special funding programs. Despite such efforts, however, 43 percent of all films broadcast by major French TV channels in 2013 were American productions.
American music is similarly dominant in Europe. Here again, France has attempted to resist — with mixed results. Radio stations there are required by law to fill 40 percent of their airtime with French songs to promote domestic talent. Hosts and station owners, however, have openly opposed the requirement, saying there simply aren't enough good songs to play. In many ways, both large and small, Europe still cannot get enough of the U.S.