Last week I conducted a simulation in my European Union Politics class, which is an upper-level undergraduate course with 18 students. The simulation is called “The Great Veggie Burger Debate”, building on the European Union’s 2019 Amendment 165, which proposed to ban the use of meat-related terms, such as “sausage” or “burgers”, for products such as “veggie burgers” or “veggie steaks” which did not contain any animal meat in them. In 2020, this Amendment was blocked by the European Parliament. In my simulation, the Amendment is back on the board, the European Parliament is leaning towards yes, and the Council of the European Union, meaning the body of nation-state ministers responsible for this policy area, has to vote on this issue (again).
This is my second time running this simulation, and I think it is a useful teaching tool to illustrate parts of the policy making cycle in the European Union and the weighing of nation-state interests vs. European-wide interests in said cycle. This time around, though, I decided against really prepping my students for the simulation week. Luckily, I teach the class three times a week, and I utilized each of these days for concrete steps to have a fruitful conversation on the last day.
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At the top of the class I handed out the text of Amendment 165, putting into context its blocking in 2020, outlining key interest groups (environmentalists vs. farmers/agricultural workers), and providing a step-by-step guide on how to proceed. I briefly talked about the instructions, let me students chose which of the 27 countries they would like to represent (I only have 18 students, so I grouped some of the closer aligned countries together), and reminded them of qualified majority voting numbers (pass: 55% of countries, 65% of population; block: at least 4 countries, 35% of population).
My students spent the rest of the class (approx. 30mins) researching their country, looking specifically at the strength of interest groups, what sort of industries dominate, vegan/vegetarian populations, government statements, how their country had voted earlier, and whether their countries already had similar legislation on the books (i.e., France). I instructed them to have a 1-minute speech ready for the next class (no requirement for free speaking, bullet points encouraged).
On the second day, each of my students positioned themselves/their country regarding the amendment. Some of them were well thought out; some not so much. But ultimately, we almost had a half and half situation of yeses and nos. I then allotted time for the groups to come together, think through their arguments, and approach the other group for conversations. We encountered an interesting situation, because the no-group, those pushing for a blocking of this amendment, realized quite quickly that they had the numbers to block it. Even though I tried to stir the pot a bit, the group stonewalled any attempts of my attempts to create disunion or attempts by the other group to converse. As a heads up for the third day, I instructed each group to determine a speaker to summarize their position at the top of the class. The yes-group spent the remainder of their class conducting research, strengthening their arguments for the last day. The no-group sat around, avoiding eye contact with me.
On the last day, each group’s speaker summarized their position. The yes-group, as the “losing group”, had a well-prepared speech and more evidence. The no-group quite briefly just reiterated their stance and emphasized that they have the numbers to “win”. I positioned myself as a mediator, taking notes during the statements, and then invited my country representatives to engage in debate. It was interesting to see how well-formulated the yes-arguments were, touching upon citizen representation, consumer protection, and environmental concerns. The no-group, in the debate at least, did not have convincing arguments, disregarding any environmental concerns, and harping largely on the idea that consumers can distinguish between veggie burgers and real burgers and do not need more guidance. We voted after about 20minutes of issue debate. One no-student decided to switch his vote to the yest group, stating that their arguments were stronger. The vote, nonetheless, was moot, given the qualified majority voting rules and the strong hold the no-group had on a block of the bill.
A couple of thoughts:
- I do not think the lack of preparation prior to the presentation really affected the quality of the simulation. The students were “prepared” through 4 weeks of lectures/activities on the European history, institutions, and the way policymaking works in the European Union.
- Using an actual policy that has been debated and voted on was beneficial because it allowed students to immediately have research material readily available.
- I made it a point to debrief after the simulation with concrete questions, allowing the students to reflect on their behaviors and positions. Here, we discussed the strength of arguments vs. qualified majority voting, the meaning of stonewalling on one vs. reiterative occasions with their fellow member-states, and most importantly the weighing of nation-state interests vs. European-wide concerns in the Council of the European Union.
- It was interesting to see this immediate adopting of winner and loser mentalities. Some no-students later stated that the yes-group’s arguments were quite convincing, but they “didn’t want to lose”.