Brexit in Europe, stalemate in U.S. – different problems, same solution

Some Europeans think the European Union government works too well, while some Americans think their federal government works too poorly. Their solutions may turn out to be the same.

The European Commission, an unelected executive and regulatory body, has imposed on countries measures it deems necessary to create a unified European economy. It has overridden national concerns and failed to recognize that dissatisfied countries could opt to leave.

The result was the Britain’s exit vote and movements in other countries demanding their countries leave the EU.

The solution may be a two-level Europe, composed of those countries willing to accept integration of their economies and public policies and others interested mainly in the free trade across national boundaries.

A multi-tier system has already exists. Nineteen “eurozone” countries have adopted a single currency, the euro. Others, including Britain even before Brexit, have their own national currencies. Even a third tier exists, composed of non-members having special trade deals with the EU.

Given the forces unleashed by the Brexit vote and the desire of Germany, France and other countries to keep the EU intact, a two-level EU could be formally created. It’s even possible that Britain would change its mind and decide to accept participation in the less tight EU version.

Whatever the outcome for Britain itself, it seems almost inevitable that a new two-level arrangement could discourage other countries, who dislike parts of the EU system, from trying to leave.

In the U.S., the issue is less about “big” government than about the inability of the federal government, deadlocked by partisanship, to make any decisions on major public issues. That’s the exact opposite of Europe.

There’s been a rush to interpret the Brexit vote as somehow similar to voter discontent shown in this year’s presidential primary contests. In fact, many unhappy American voters are not rejecting too much government, but protesting the breakdown of the federal government.

Because of the deep partisanship that has developed in Congress and between Congress and the president since 1994, the federal government has been unable to produce responses to pressing public needs.

Deadlock in Washington on matters from gun control to birth control plus just plain partisan opposition for its own sake has prevented Washington from producing needed answers.

Increasingly, the states have moved to adopt their own answers to policy issues. In effect, the U.S. itself is creating its own two-tier system.

There is a long history of conservatives asserting what they consider state’s rights. They want states to escape federal laws they dislike by opting out. But recent developments depart from that tradition. States adopt their own policies to fill a vacuum left by federal deadlock.

Perhaps a democratic republic of more than 300 million people, the third most populous country in the world, cannot produce a decision-making process able to deal with increasingly complex issues. Maybe it’s better to rely more on individual state action, wherever constitutionally possible.

One view is that states are closer to problems, better reflect the people’s will, and should have the right, even using federal money, to deal with issues as they determine. For example, that explains Gov. LePage’s desire to set his own food stamp standards.

Last month, Congress passed a major, new chemical safety law for the first time in 40 years. It had previously been unable to agree, allowing the states to pass stronger protections for the handling and use of toxic materials.

The main reason Congress finally acted was most likely pressure from chemicals manufacturers that disliked the many different state rules. Even so, existing state rules stricter than the new legislation are allowed under the new law, though new, tougher state rules are banned.

Gun control is a good example of the existing two-tier system. Congress cannot act, so California, big enough to be a country by itself, enacted its own restrictions on assault weapons. That creates a legal level different from federal regulation.

Under this two-tier approach, each state can tailor-make its policy. Maine, a markedly different environment from California, can have virtually no restrictions on guns.

If this keeps up, the U.S. could slip toward confederation, like Canada or Switzerland. That would produce a smaller federal government.

The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed the inherent sovereignty of individual states alongside the U.S. While Congress has the constitutional power to impose the supremacy of federal law over state law, partisan stalemate could prevent it from asserting such federal authority.

A two-tier system may turn out to be in the cards on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.