Simulating the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council, Part 1

Today we have the first of two guest posts from Nicholas Wright, of the political science department at University College London. He can be reached at nicholas [dot] wright [at] ucl [dot] ac [dot] uk.

My favourite class of the autumn term is when we simulate a crisis meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) as part of my ‘EU in the World’ postgraduate module. It’s a great opportunity to turn from (sometimes quite dry) conceptual and theoretical discussions about EU actorness (or lack thereof) and test out in practice some of our assumptions – e.g. about how negotiation and decision-making work in the FAC, how far traditional power attributes bestow advantage, etc. It’s also a great opportunity for the students to take the lead while I remain on the sidelines and observe.

This year, our meeting focused on Turkey’s military deployment in northern Syria. The students had just two and a quarter hours to reach a consensus and draft answers to two questions:

  • Should the EU respond any further to the crisis?
  • Does the EU need to reset its longer-term relationship with Turkey, particularly regarding Turkey’s path to possible future EU membership?

The outcome of the meeting was interesting. Beyond rejecting any form of EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) military or civilian mission, the group could not reach consensus on anything. Caught up in discussion of the first question, which I had intended to be resolved swiftly, they had insufficient time to adequately address the second. The resulting diplomatic statement offered little in the way of concrete action while substantive discussion of the EU-Turkey relationship was postponed for a future meeting.

This outcome was initially considered a failure in the subsequent debriefing. But in dissecting what happened, the ‘failure’ highlighted to very good effect the challenges posed by this kind of policy discussion, especially when actors with clear status quo positions seek to prevent a more proactive policy response.

Using the simulation:

The simulation takes place in Week 7. In Week 3 students are informed about the topic, provided with briefing documents, and assigned their roles. The class is capped at twenty students so not all EU member states can be represented. One is assigned the role of HR/VP (High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) who acts as chair, and one each acts as the holder of the rotating presidency, the European External Action Service (EEAS), and the relevant Commission Directorate-General. The remaining students are assigned a member state and wherever possible they represent their home state.

As preparation, students submit a 1,000-word negotiation brief in Week 5. Although the simulation itself is formative, the brief is assessed and must set out the historical role of their actor in relation to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), their goals and red lines, and a strategy for how the meeting will be approached. Students may disclose the contents of their briefs to one other, but only after submission.

In Week 6, the HR/VP, in consultation with the rotating presidency, EEAS, and Commission, produces a preliminary agenda for the meeting. From that point, students are actively encouraged to consult with each other up until the simulation starts. To facilitate this, I created a discussion forum on the module’s Moodle page, and this year students also used WhatsApp.

The simulation starts with a brief introduction where I remind them of the ground rules including the time limit. Then the HR/VP takes over the task of facilitating the discussions, beginning with an opening tour de table.

Approximately twenty minutes before the end of the simulation, I introduce a ‘live’ update that is intended to disrupt their deliberations, test their ability to think on their feet, and get them to demonstrate their understanding of their actor’s interests and priorities. In this case it was a Turkish decision to suspend the 2016 refugee agreement with the EU, which resulted in a hastily drafted additional paragraph at the end of students’ conclusions.

We conduct a twenty-five minute debriefing after the simulation. Students consider whether they achieved the goals they had identified in their original briefs, reasons for why this happened, and what they could have done differently.