Commentary

In Praise of Penelope: Prodi’s Project and the Undoing of the European Union

Penelope, the ancient myth tells us, was the beautiful wife of a Greek hero, King Odysseus. When her husband went to fight the Trojans, Penelope stayed behind on the island of Ithaca. For 20 years she remained faithful to Odysseus. Eventually, a number of determined suitors descended on Ithaca to marry her and with her to gain Odysseus’s crown. The ever-faithful Penelope devised an ingenious way of delaying having to make a decision on re-marrying. She announced that she would remarry after the completion of a funeral canopy of Laertes, Odysseus’s father. During the day she worked at the robe, but in the night she undid the work of the day. The above myth is the origin of the famous Penelope’s web - a proverbial expression denoting anything which is perpetually doing but never done.

Penelope has been in the news recently. This time, “Penelope” is the code word for a draft of the EU constitution prepared for the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi. The constitution, Prodi hopes, will bring the European states closer together and create what will in essence be a federal super-state. Why did Prodi choose “Penelope” to name his pet project? Perhaps he wished to denote the perpetual nature of the integration process aimed at the creation of an “ever-closer Union.” Or maybe he wished to denote his desire to solve some of the dilemmas facing the Union. One such dilemma is the complicated decision-making process in Brussels. As long as the member states retain their independence, Prodi believes, the EU will remain a sum of their compromises. However, were his dream of a single European constitution to materialize, it would eliminate the last remnants of national sovereignty over such important issues as tax harmonization and common defense and foreign policy.

But the Penelope story is also instructive in a way that may not please either Prodi or his fellow Eurocrats. Penelope engaged in a surreptitious activity. Albeit for the best of reasons, she was nonetheless a cheat. That is exactly how the EU bureaucracy operated until now. Its project to create a single European super-state was pursued by stealth. Before the adoption of the Euro, the federalist ambitions of the EU were downplayed. Few Europeans were, after all, prepared to give up their national sovereignty to be governed by Brussels. But as soon as the Euro became a reality, the EU Commission started working on a European constitution. Brussels clearly hopes that countries, which jettisoned their currencies in favor of the Euro, are now so deeply interlinked that they will not dare to leave the EU because of its transformation into a federal super-state.

But, as the ancient myth continues, Penelope’s scheme did not last in perpetuity. One day it came to light and only Odysseus’s miraculous arrival saved her from making a commitment to another man. The EU Commission in general and President Prodi in particular had finally, so it seems, decided to put their cards on the table. After “Penelope” it will no longer be possible for them to deny what the EU project is about: creation of a single political entity. That will provide the people of Europe-who have for decades seen the powers of Brussels expand until the EU became a centralized and over-regulated Leviathan-with a definite choice.

On the one hand, they will be faced with Prodi’s vision of the EU growing more bureaucratized, unaccountable, and detached from people’s concerns. On the other hand, they will have an opportunity to undo, as Penelope did, the fabric of the European behemoth. As Penelope, who defended what was precious to her, the people of Europe will be able to re-assert their sovereign will and reject further European integration. In so doing, they may succeed in transforming the Union into what it might have been: a free trade area, where people enjoy the fruits of prosperity, while at the same time maintaining their right to determine their own destinies.

Marian L. Tupy is assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the Cato Institute.