society is changing dramatically. Most of our ancestors were born into
predetermined social and economic structures and had little scope to
considerably alter their lives. Europeans today, however, have substantially
more control over their destiny. The underlying concept behind this development
is the principle of self-determination.
Personal self-determination includes the freedom to choose our educational and professional path, the people we associate with, the language we prefer to speak, the place we want to live in, but also our religious, sexual or political orientation. All these freedoms are recognised as fundamental rights in Western societies although they were restricted in the past and remain contested in some parts of the world today.
An important part of personal self-determination is the concept of collective self-determination. We all belong to a variety of collectives, be it a nation, a region, a commune, a religious group, a family or the company we work for. While in the past most collectives were governed by predefined hierarchies, often based on class, gender, age or race, there is a growing pressure now to increase democratic participation. This is to ensure that all members of a collective have a voice and can attain at least a certain degree of self-fulfilment within the collective.
This trend has also shaped public life and politics. Half a century ago democracy meant little more than the right to vote for a political party that represented one’s social class or a general political view. The modern notion of democracy is substantially more participatory: People want to be involved in the decision-making process. They expect from politicians to maintain constant two-way contact with their constituencies, and want important matters to be communicated directly to them.
To a limited extent politics has adapted to the need for more grass-roots democracy by strengthening direct democracy and community involvement in certain areas of the decision-making process. However, our overall political structures remain stuck in the early 1900s. They are marked by Europe's ongoing division into ethnic nation states with centralist political systems that are far removed from its citizens and the needs of an increasingly individualised and multicultural society longing for more self-determination. The calls for secession or more autonomy in many regions across Europe are only the tip of the iceberg, but they actually highlight how out of step the nation states are regarding the needs of our time.
Therefore, it is not only the often criticised EU that needs to be reformed, but much rather the centralist nation states themselves. While many parts of Europe would benefit from a leaner but also stronger EU in certain fields, it is equally important that we strengthen communes and regions as they are not only closer to individuals, but also much closer to most of the issues that affect them.
Competencies across all levels of government should generally be divided on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity as already defined in the Treaty of Lisbon. In other words: We need to bring the decision-making process to all the citizens by giving local and regional government more powers. This should lead to more grass-roots democracy, less nationalism as well as a more flexible and needs-based approach to economic and fiscal matters.
In turn this will enable Europe as a whole to become stronger and more effective, and the regions and communes of Europe to become more responsible, self-sufficient and competitive. Such a EU-wide decentralization process is not only long overdue, but of critical importance to Europe's future.