Federalism System of Government in Europe

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  • 0:07 Federalism
  • 0:41 Definition
  • 2:04 Federalism in the EU
  • 3:32 Comparisons to U.S.
  • 6:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the federalist system of government, the growth of pan-European federalism, and how it compares to the federalism that exists in the United States.


Most people prefer to have things their own way. When faced with a tough choice between two options, they usually pick one or the other. Sometimes, though, it's best to have a little of both. Some nations in the world have chosen this option when designing their governmental structures. Instead of giving all the power to the central government or all the power to regional authorities, they divide the power to rule between the two, a political system known as federalism. In this lesson, we will detail exactly what federalism is, how it functions in Europe, and how that compares to U.S. federalism.


Federalism is a system of government where power is divided between a central government and several other distinct, semi-autonomous regions. How much power resides in the federal government and how much power resides in the regional or local governments is often dictated by either a constitution or the compiled, statutory law of the states and central government in question.

There are many federal states across the world, and the amount of power in each federal government and its regional authorities varies. For example, the United States Constitution claims that any powers not explicitly given to the federal government in the Constitution are considered the power of each state. Alternatively, the U.S.'s Northern neighbor, Canada, does largely the opposite. While the federal government in Canada shares power with its provinces, most power to govern falls to the stronger federal government. These may only be differences of degrees, but they can cause enormous differences between each federalist nation.

Within Europe, there are several nations that practice federalism. The largest of these, Germany, is made up of 16 semi-autonomous states. These 16 states each have their own constitution; in theory, they are subservient to the 1949 Basic Law document, which lays out the framework for how Germany is to be governed. Russia is also considered to be a federal republic; however, it has a stronger executive branch than in Germany.

Federalism in EU

When most people talk about federalism in Europe, they are usually talking about the growth of Europe's supranational economic and political organization, the European Union. The European Union has grown out of various organizations in the post-WWII era to foster economic, political, and legal cooperation between EU member states. Though originally just six western European states, the organization now calls nearly the entire continent (28 nations in all) its members. It began in 1951 merely to pool industrial resources and eliminate tariffs to improve its member nations' economies; in the decades since, it has fostered increased integration in all sectors of government, economy, and society.

The power and scope of the central European government has increased incrementally over the past six decades, and European federalism is at its highest point in history as of the early 21st century. The EU possesses a European Parliament, whose members are directly elected by the citizens of EU member states. The European Council, a body consisting of the leaders of all 28 member states, now meets regularly, at least four times a year. The European Commission, a body of appointed delegates, sets the general direction for EU policy. The EU even possesses a judiciary body in charge of ensuring EU law is followed in member states and an auditory body, which ensures EU funds are being spent on their intended purpose.

Comparisons to U.S.

All of these institutions give the EU the face of federalism but little of the actual power. Indeed, in contrast to a true federalist state, like the United States or Canada, the EU's federal bodies do not possess the same power over their member states. In the United States and Canada, federal law ultimately rules state or provincial law in every instance. Though the states do possess many powers of their own, if the federal government makes a law limiting or changing one of these powers, the states are required to adhere to the federal legislation regardless of their own inclinations.

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