The term «federalism» derives from the Latin «foedus», meaning «alliance» or «covenant». Generally the term refers to a structural principle for systems of government, but it can be used in other contexts as well. Federalism takes many forms (e.g. institutional, cooperative, symmetrical/asymmetrical, financial, participatory federalism), all of which give shape and meaning to the term.
«Like many other major terms used in political philosophy and constitutional law, federalism carries a certain semantic haziness and therefore requires definition and interpretation. Fundamentally, federalism is a political structure for freedom based on territorial division. It represents a structural concept that concerns itself with society but is primarily about government. Freedom will also always require positioning, a framework, contact points and reference points - a basic principle for real development which is catered to by federalism. At the same time, this concept of structured freedom is characterised by variability: it can relate to many different commercial or societal entities and to national or governmental conditions; it can be institutionally conservative while dynamic in political practice and progressive in problem-solving; it can bring together the marks of different eras in the present but remain open to the future of new federal developments (such as the European Union).» (see Ines Härtel, Alte und neue Föderalismuswelten, in: Handbuch Föderalismus, Band I: Grundlagen des Föderalismus und der deutsche Bundesstaat, Heidelberg 2012, Prologue, MN 5)