What is Europe For?

07/10/2012 17:56 BST | Updated 05/12/2012 10:12 GMT

We are at one of those points in history where the choices we make will have a big impact on our future. At the moment we seem surrounded by confusion and many voices vie for our attention. This is normal when the order we are used to is breaking down and the one that will take its place is not yet fully formed. It is at times like these that leaders, and the leaders we follow, matter.

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the world was shifting from being Eurocentric to Americacentric, the United States and its institutions held firm in the face of widespread individual hardship. Europe, already weakened by the catastrophically foolish First World War, a death throw of its imperial past, did not. The leaders who emerged - Lenin, Franco, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini - grabbed the reins of their peoples' stampeding emotions, kicked aside weak institutions, and instilled a brutal kind of order that pleased many even as it consigned others to a living hell.

The change we are confronting has several faces. One is that the American age is drawing to a close. Another is that growth for the next several decades will be in what were once called the developing nations. A third facet of the change we face is that in mature economies quality is becoming the key issue rather than quantity and quality requires a broadly educated and inclusive population.

A fourth characteristic of this change is that globalization has made national governments impotent over many areas, just as, fifth, the complexities of modern society make more locally based solutions to problems highly desirable.

The good news is that the European Union is tailor made for the modern age. It transcends nations and is of a sufficient scale to deal effectively with the globalized world we live in. This same scale makes it possible for coherent communities like the Catalans and the Scots to deal with those issues that are best dealt with on a far smaller scale than national governments can now do. In the world as it is today, the people of Europe are a coherent whole with a culture that is precious and uniquely their own. Our social model, frayed as it may be, is exactly right for this age in which the quality of our lives will increasingly depend on the quality and social equivalence of the individuals we deal with day in day out.

The bad news is that old political structures are in the way and adjusting only grudgingly, while leadership at the European level is all but invisible to the majority of Europe's people. I have no quick fix to offer. But I would say this: the stakes could not be higher. Those who believe, as I do, that the European dimension is the only dimension that makes sense for our future, must work night and day to use those tools the European Union offers to improve people's lives.

From now on the mantra must be under-promise and over-deliver, rather than the other way around, and where national governments are the obstacle these should be fought openly, clearly and with force, as if our lives depended on it - which they probably do.