The system of governance in the EU gives national governments a central role. Brussels has not supplanted nor replaced national capitals, and thus the EU co-exists with powerful national political systems. While governance takes place in Brussels, government takes place in the member states. It is there that electoral accountability, legitimacy, and identity are anchored (Sbragia 2002). Even those who argue that the EU “bears a growing institutional resemblance to the established multi-tiered systems of traditional federal states” accept that national governments “remain extremely powerful” (Pierson and Leibfried 1995: 6).
Federalism has been an attractive referent for scholars precisely because the national governments retain so much power within a system of governance in which an important “center” is nonetheless present (Sbragia 1992b: Rodden 2002). That center is so strong that the EU is no longer simply a sophisticated international organization, but it is weaker than the center found in the decentralized federations of Canada and Switzerland (McKay 2001, 2002; Nicolaidis and Howse 2001: Börzel and Hosli 2002).
Although placing the EU within the universe of federal states certainly presents analytic problems, it does permit useful although not rigorous comparisons. In particular, it highlights features of the process of European integration which might not seem significant if analyzed in isolation.
The issue of policy change is particularly interesting in both the EU and the US. Both systems of governance must cope with a large population, a territorially diverse economy, and the dispersal rather than the centralization of power.