The U.S. may appear distinctive compared to many European nations in the extent to which state laws differ from state to state, as they are given more jurisdiction to govern themselves. For example, the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade relegated the question of abortion to the state level.

However, if one simply reframed the EU as a large, federated governing body akin to what the U.S. federal government is, would it not appear that the EU, taken weakly as a nation, is a far, far more decentralized entity than the U.S., given how much more independence each constituent member - the countries - have in governing themselves?

How would the two entities compare to one another, regarding the extent to which the EU actually regulates its member states?

  • 1
    Of course, there are other federations that are looser or tighter than both, but it's probably not possible, or not particularly meaningful, to establish a single absolute measure of autonomy versus centralization, since different federations assign different responsibilities to the central government. For example, Switzerland licenses drivers federally, whereas the EU and US do not (but individual EU member states do). The US handles nationality federally, while the EU does not, and Switzerland has a hybrid approach.
    – phoog
    Jan 5 at 9:52

2 Answers 2


The EU would seem, mostly, looser:

  • Contrast Brexit vs the Civil War. One has an explicit method to leave, unilaterally. The other, doesn't.

  • Less oversight on how citizens, who remain citizens of EU countries, are treated. For example, until Roe vs Wade was overturned, the Feds forbade abortion prohibitions (though not inconveniencing). The EU did not regulate how Ireland or Poland legislated that matter. Another example would be drug policies: EU states range from the very permissive to rather prohibitive. In contrast, the US Feds maintain certain levers, such as bank regulations or border prohibitions on drug users. See also the sorry Prohibition episode.

  • Immigration and border control is mostly a country-level concern in the EU. It is federal in the US. Schengen can be limited by countries at times.

  • Civil rights. Whatever one thinks of US civil rights, the states are not free to do as they please. Hungary, and previously Poland, have at times skirted with policies that would have certainly run foul of some Interstate Commerce regulations or constitutional rights and whatnot, and been enforced out from the center.

  • Likewise, some of the corruption allegations make against Hungary or Poland, as well as the throttling of their judiciary's independence, would have likely resulted in federal involvement.

  • Police. There is no equivalent to the FBI, which has direct, physical, jurisdiction, on federal matters, in every state.

  • Vetos. It is hard to envision a small, isolated, US state playing the role of Hungary's Orban in stopping US federal policy. It would have to form up a Congressional power bloc to do so.

  • Monetary policy. Not everyone is on the Euro as a currency.

There is a flip side to this. The EU also emanated from a desire to homogenize and integrate economic activity, so it has an extensive body of economy-related regulations that the member countries signed up to respect. Labor laws seem to have more oversight from Brussels (I think, don't hold me to that, not a lawyer). Subsidies may, for example, face more scrutiny than would an individual US state. Deficits, at least in the Eurozone, theoretically can be scrutinized by Brussels.

US states have wide leeway to challenge federal regulations on constitutional grounds. The equivalent EU notion, that of subsidiarity, seems often rather toothless in comparison.

  • The E.U. also lacks its own military (v. about 2.5 million U.S. active duty military and civilian full time federal employees in defense and vet's affairs), its own postal service (with about 0.5 million U.S. federal employees), or any significant land holdings to manage (a significant share of the remaining 1.1 million U.S. federal employees). usafacts.org/articles/… Less than one in ten thousand judges in the E.U. work for the E.U. rather than national governments v. about 5% of U.S. judges being federal rather than state judges.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 5 at 19:38
  • The E.U. directly employs only about 60,000 people. european-union.europa.eu/live-work-study/… The E.U. has a 55% larger population and a two-thirds larger GDP than the U.S. but the budget for the E.U. institutions is about $270 billion USD per year v. $5,030 billion USD per year for the U.S. federal government. commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/eu-budget/… usafacts.org/articles/…
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 5 at 19:44
  • There is Interpol, which is not strictly an E.U. institution, but heavily overlaps. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpol
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 5 at 19:57


If the EU were viewed as a federation, would it appear more decentralized than the U.S.?

The EU is not a federation. So yes if you tried to image it as a federation it would appear less federated than an actual federation like the United States.

The EU is not a federation for two primary reasons:

  1. Member States have the exclusive power to amend or change it's organizational treaties.

  2. The EU does not have the authority to tax either it's citizens or it's member states. It survives financially largely based on member state unanimous consent, donations, fines levied against companies doing business there, and tariffs. It doesn't have the authority to tax income or property of the citizens.

A federation by definition is one country which shares power with it's component members. The EU is not a country but an assemble, the member states retain all the power and submit to the collective as they decide largely on a case by case basis and largely requiring unanimous consent.

The EU is not a State; it derives its authority from its Member States

There is no power sharing between the members and the central body, the members retain all the power.

Although the EU possesses and maintains many of the institutions present in a federalist state, EU lacks sufficient authority over the affairs of its member states to be considered a federalist government. The EU governs largely by unanimous consent rather than possesses it's own domain of responsibilities where it's member states are subservient. Like foreign policy, or military action.

The EU's constitutional charter is not an actual constitution because it does not describe the EU as a state rather an assemble of states and that's how it's structured; and that is not a federated system.

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