Europe and America: parallel lives, centuries apart: The institutions of government

By Adrian Taylor

The European Union is increasingly mentioned in informed media as playing a role in global politics and business. Most often it associated with trade policy disputes and anti-trust actions, but recently attention is also turning to its foreign policy role. Over a series of articles, the author, an English expert on EU affairs living in the US, seeks to outline how the development of the EU parallels the historical development of the USA, and thereby to enlighten the often confusing debates on what the EU is and does.

Confusion reigns

The EU’s governing institutions have long been described as complex to understand. In their detailed functioning this is true, with many exceptions existing to the general rules. And yet the EU institutions bear more than a passing resemblance to their US equivalents – at least as these institutions were designed when the US constitution was first written.

EU and US governmental institutions compared

Like the US, the EU has three major branches of government:

European Union United States of America
Upper House (States) Council of Ministers Senate
Lower House (People) European Parliament House of Representatives
Head of State European Council President
Daily Government European Commissioners President, Executive Office of President & Cabinet members
High court Court of Justice Supreme Court
Inferior courts Court of First Instance (only) Federal appellate court and circuit courts

As we shall see, the equivalence of the institutions is much stronger when compared to how the US institutions used to be, rather than how they are today.


US Senators were originally nominated by states; it was only in 1913 that the Constitution was changed to provide for direct election. The EU’s Council of Ministers functions on a system similar to the pre-1913 model, with the nominated state representatives being ministers from the member state governments. Even if the Council claims to be more than a legislature, its role is similar to that of the US Senate at its inception, discussing the great affairs of state and with pre-eminence over the lower house on trade, security and foreign policy. Just as each EU country has an army today, in the late 18th Century the bulk of the US armed forces were the militias which state governors controlled.

The lower house of the legislature, the House of Representatives, has a direct homologue in the European Parliament which is directly elected every five years. The EP however, suffers from certain states being over-represented, and from an electoral system which is not uniform from member state to member state. However, these phenomena were not unknown in the House’s history either. It should also be noted that, contrary to common affirmation, turnout of EP elections are substantially higher than turnout for mid-term congressional elections.


The 20 European Commissioners act as day to day government of the EU. However, the Commission President, and the 19 colleagues he co-selects, lack a popular mandate. Instead they are voted in unanimously by an electoral college of the member states, before going through Parliamentary hearings, and being sworn in by the Court of Justice. But once again, do not forget that the first US Presidents were chosen by an electoral college whose members were chosen by the states, not the ballot box. Like their US predecessors, the lack of popular legitimacy means that Commission Presidents can only impose themselves by force of character against otherwise powerful states and legislatures.

In keeping with European tradition, the EU separates the function of head of government from that of head of state. The head of state not only has responsibility for nominating the government but also (as in France) a predominant role in foreign and security policy, as well as responsibility for providing moral vision for where the EU should be headed. Rather than incarnate this role in a single person, the EU has established a collective body known as the European Council. This is made up of EU heads of state and of government who meet four times a year for a summit. To the outside world, the European Council is represented by the leader of the member state which chairs the meeting, and this job of “Presidency” changes hands from state to state every six months.


The European Court of Justice made ground breaking decisions in the 1960s of the supremacy of European law over national legislation, its right of judicial review and of direct effect of EU law on European citizens, comparable to that of the Marshall Court of the early 19th century.

A new form of federation for the 21st century

Given the place of member states in the executive and legislature, the EU has developed a flat – hierarchyless – federation, where states are collectively their own boss. Some suggest this will change, and over time the EU will develop the same characteristics as the US. However, there are reasons to doubt such a move – not least the new economy breeds flat organic networks of the sort the EU resembles.

Adrian Taylor is a Research Associate of the EU Center, University System of Georgia, and holds an honorary Professor’s position at the Sam Nunn School of International Relations, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, USA. He is currently working for Think Tools A.G. a software firm in Zurich, Switzerland. He can be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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