Black Boxes

Do you know how your phone works? Unless you’re a PHD student or a Silicon Valley engineer, the answer is probably; not really. And yet most of us know how to work a phone. This is known as a ‘black box.’ An opaque instrument with incredibly complex inner-workings that transform conscious inputs into desired outcomes. You press a series of buttons, your taxi (or Uber) arrives at your door. It really isn’t important for us to know what magic happens inside the case.

Now, what about your government? And what about the EU?

In Adults in the Room, Yanis Varoufakis describes global networks of power as a series of ‘Super black boxes.’ The difference being, ‘that while most of us have barely any control over their inputs, their outputs shape all of our lives.’ You put a cross in a box..? It is really important for us to know what magic happens inside the room. Without claiming to know what happens in the black box of others mind’s one can say safely the Brexit vote was a vote against the status quo. Clearly people are unhappy with the current output of the global network of super black boxes. Many people cited returning power from Brussels as a major reason for voting to leave. The desire: to bring the exercise of power over British citizens closer to British citizens. However the ensuing divorce threatens to have the opposite effect.

The Global Game

Unless Britain shuts itself off from the outside world entirely, it still remains bound into the same network of super black boxes. The only difference being a loss of input into the box labelled ‘EU.’ The EU has already shown a willingness to take on tax avoidance. They have begun work on legislation that will allow sanctions against countries that offer tax havens. Sven Giegold, the European Parliament Green group’s finance spokesperson, pointed out that the British government has tried to obfuscate this process. Whether Britain is inside or outside the EU, they will be beholden to the outputs of the finance industry.

The nature of the EU makes it far more capable of cracking down on tax avoidance than individual states. The EU wishes to have details of tax avoidance systems and schemes compiled in a central database that all Member states would have to contribute to, and have the ability to access. The financial industries are one of the largest, blackest boxes in the world. They keep their inner workings hidden through complicated multinational arrangements. At present it is only whistleblowing, such as the Panama paper leaks, that makes any of these systems public. It is only through institutions such as the EU that the lid can be prised off the industry.

The People Power of PESCO

Frederica Mogherini’s, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, has claimed that more has been done in the area of defence and security ‘in the last ten months than in the last ten years.’ The purgatorial nature of Britain’s position in the EU has facilitated the intensification of EU defence integration. The UK has consistently vetoed movements towards a common EU military force. As the UK extricates itself from the EU it has chosen to relax its veto and allow the implementation of a Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). PESCO is a legal commitment to shared and coordinated military spending, planning and operation. Those most resolute in exiting European structures would point to this as a vindication of their fear of the ‘ever closer union.’

I would argue that the unbridling of European ambitions to move towards a collective military has given EU citizens more power, not less. National sovereignty remains ‘effectively untouched’ due to the council structure adopted by the 25 voluntarily participating member states. But a government must make their case before its allies. It must therefore share its intelligence and information. The council structure ensures the elected representative of one country must be open and honest with the elected representatives of another. This makes unjustified action less likely. It demands leaders challenge each other and in so doing illuminate one another’s electorates.

Majority of One

The recent strikes in Syria, enacted trilaterally by the UK, the USA and France demonstrated a serious divergence from conducting, authorising and legitimising, military action through either NATO, the UN or the EU. Theresa May didn’t even consult parliament prior to the strikes. This is a dangerous precedent of eradicating both internal and external scrutiny. Arguably this would not have been possible if she had to make her case before 24 European member states first. She would need the full backing of parliament, or they would have the opportunity to work with those across Europe to explore other options. The opportunities for participation grow and the voice of the people is amplified over the control of one women with a mandate of 37,718.

It has been characteristic of Theresa May’s premiership to resist calls for public release of information; including notably those pertaining to the Windrush scandal. She has also been loath to implement Privy Council terms in sharing sensitive information with the leader of the opposition. Corbyn was kept in the dark on the Salisbury incident. He received a far less detailed intelligence report on the use of chemical weapons on British soil than May saw. It was also less than Cameron elected to divulge to then leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, in 2013 as he sought parliamentary approval of airstrikes in Syria. Without the necessity of multilateral cooperation, accountability is dramatically lessened. As such power moves closer to home but further from the people.

The Power of Unity: Transparency

Brexit will allow our government to take back certain controls from Brussels. However it relinquishes an insight into a number of black boxes, and it is no guarantee that this control will move any closer to the people. It is undoubtable that the bureaucracy in Europe, its connections with the IMF and the World Bank, has created a new series of black boxes over which we have little control. The treatment of the Syriza government in Greece was proof of that. The EU needs reform, but a hard exit does not secure a disentanglement from these unaccountable power structures. In order to bring power closer to the people we must begin to operate politically in the same global manner as those power structures.

The EU’s future is uncertain but it is vital that all of us find a way to fulfil one of its founding principles; “the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen”. The ever closer union of peoples, not the ever closer union of political agencies. Friends and enemies do not have nationalities and they do not exist solely within one or another institution. Our enemy is lack of transparency. We can only overturn that by talking through the walls.

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