“The Great Veggie Burger Debate”

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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Monday:

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).

Wednesday:

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.

Friday:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Using an actual policy that has been debated and voted on was beneficial because it allowed students to immediately have research material readily available.  
  3. 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.
  4. 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”.

Virtual Public Policy Simulation on Tackling Covid-19

Today we have a guest post from Daniela Irrera, associate professor of International Relations and Global Civil Society at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania. She can be reached at dirrera [at] unict [dot] it.

During Italy’s pandemic-induced lockdown, I found myself having to teach an entirely virtual course on European foreign policy, part of the MA programme on Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations (GLOPEM)  at the University of Catania. I usually include simulations in my courses, and given the policy implications of the Covid-19 outbreak, I decided to create Tackling Covid-19 in a Global Perspective—a simulated emergency G20 meeting in Geneva, called to plan a global strategy for managing the pandemic’s health, political, social, and economic effects. Students represented panels of experts for the following policy areas: public health emergency; economic consequences; infrastructure and human mobility; impact on refugees, migrants and non-nationals; and impact on the conflict in Syria.

Continue reading “Virtual Public Policy Simulation on Tackling Covid-19”

Simulating the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council, Part 2

Today we have the second of two 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.

Some key insights from the simulation:

  • Talking to colleagues matters. While all students produced negotiation briefs, very few used their briefs as a basis for preliminary discussions with colleagues. Some did seek to build alliances with like-minded partners, but few outside the formal leadership group of HR/VP, Presidency and institutions attempted to build bridges to those they thought would have opposing positions. All recognised the importance of knowing what their partners wanted, but not all acted on it. Those that did felt better prepared for the meeting.
  • Respond to the draft agenda. Several students felt that the agenda did not sufficiently reflect the issues. However, even though it was circulated well in advance, none of the member states engaged directly with the HR/VP to discuss whether it could be amended, even though it was deliberately anodyne to enable flexibility.
  • Time flies. Everyone felt the pressure of time, especially in the second hour. They all thought they had more time for discussion than they did and did not consider time allocated for the debrief. Despite the Chair encouraging them to move as swiftly as possible to the second question, it was neglected.
  • Being heard matters . . . but so does taking part. With any group of students there will be those who are more forthright and vocal, so part of the challenge is to encourage everyone to participate as fully as possible. Ultimately, the time is theirs and this year everyone made at least some contribution. France, Germany and Hungary were all quite active, while Ireland less so. The UK representative struggled to get the attention of the chair, partly because of the table layout, but also because she felt constrained by the impact of Brexit—thereby, wittingly or not, reflecting the reality of these meetings since 2016!

I drew three lessons from the simulation that I can apply to the future:

  • Picking a good leadership group matters. This is quite a challenge as roles are assigned early in the term and it is not always clear at that stage who will have the requisite skills to manage the meeting. But this year, I feel my choice was vindicated – the HR/VP was effective and was ably supported by the EEAS and Commission.
  • Time management is crucial. This year I deliberately reduced the number of questions to two to allow even more time for discussion and negotiation, but did not anticipate that the discussions would become so dominated by the first question. Next year I will reduce the initial tour de table from 3 to 2 minutes and in the pre-briefing with the HR/VP really emphasise the need to be strict on time. We’ll see if that makes a difference.
  • Build on the negotiation component of the module. There is an opportunity to include more training in negotiation prior to the simulation. Adding a short exercise in preceding weeks that deals with specific negotiating scenarios would improve the practical aspects of the module and probably the simulation itself.

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.

Parliament Game with the Gray-Tufted Banderwot

Gray-Tufted Banderwot

A few years ago, Simon invented a game to model coalitions in the European Parliament (also described here and here). I decided to try it in my comparative politics as a lesson in how legislatures function. After some confusion as students figured out what to do, they clustered into two coalitions; the outcome loosely resembled a two-party/median voter system. But I had forgotten to remove the high-value cards from the deck before starting the game. The class has only fourteen students, and the distribution of card values was so great that it was difficult for students to accumulate influence points.

I decided to run the game again in the next class, after removing face cards from the deck. Influence points were calculated the same as before. But I added a twist. Each student received additional instructions that varied according to the value of his or her card: Continue reading “Parliament Game with the Gray-Tufted Banderwot”

Biting off more than you can chew?

kerry_and_lavrov_with_senior_advisers_negotiate_chemical_weapons_agreement_on_september_14_2013
We can do better than this. Probably

A while back, I wrote about running a sim on Brexit, the UK’s departure from the EU. (Obviously, ‘departure’ makes it sound grand and stately, rather than the big old mess that it more actually resembles, but I digress). In it, I asked if anyone was up for working together on doing this.

Well, we have a winner: Matthew LeRiche from Memorial in Newfoundland. Matthew joined us in Surrey earlier this year for our ALPS workshops, and this doesn’t seem to have discouraged him from working with us again. Continue reading “Biting off more than you can chew?”

Simulating Brexit

2153602543_91bc39b403In the spirit of not wasting a good crisis, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union offers a great way into understanding a number of political dynamics.

Of course, we need to tread a bit carefully here, for a number of reasons. Firstly, this is a highly fluid situation, so whatever one might plan for the autumn might be completely overtaken by events. Secondly, some of the things that have happened over the past week are so extreme and atypical that while you might reproduce them in a simulation setting, you are almost certainly never going to see them happen again. Thirdly, there’s an awful lot going on, so you need to pick your targets clearly.

With all those caveats in mind, some options still present themselves.

Most obviously, there is going to a negotiation to agree the terms of the UK’s exit, as per Art.50 TEU. Now, as I don’t need to tell you (but maybe do need to tell some of the campaigners), this means the other member states agree a position, then negotiate with the UK to reach an agreement, which is then approved by all (plus the European Parliament (EP)).

This would work well with a large group, representing as many of the different parties as you like, using whatever protocol the EU finally establishes for this (probably available in the autumn), or just the same rough approach I set out in a different EU-crisis scenario earlier this year. The need for EP approval adds a nice little twist, as member states will have to take account of it throughout the negotiations, while simultaneously thinking how they can make sure MEPs don’t make life any more complicated than it already is.

The difficulties will be primarily one of scale: with up to 28 states, can students find enough material to support their negotiating briefs? I’m aware of some groups that are pulling together such intel, but even this will be relatively brief, especially if your negotiation gets into any substantive issues (which it most likely would). One way around this would to limit discussion to core principles and a framework deal, or to a particular area of policy.

The second obvious option to pursue is one focused on the domestic politics of the situation. Here, a Parliamentary debate might be in order, either on confirming the result of the referendum, or an outline negotiating brief for the government in the Art.50 talks, or on motion of no confidence (this one is a bit further down the line). This let’s students get into party politics (both at the inter- and intra-party levels) and ties in nicely with all the other shenanigans going on in Westminister these days.

The third option draws a bit from both of the first, by focusing on any one actor in this process and drawing up a detailed negotiating brief for them: the UK, another member state, the EP, the European Council President or the Commission. This gets much deeper into substantive issues, so it’s best suited to those who already know about the workings of the EU, including any law students you can drag in: you could do this with a much smaller group, or even run parallel groups. Moreover, given the apparent lack of planning that was done before the vote, you could probably then send your final brief to that institution and have a good chance that they’d use it.

Finally, you could step out of the narrowly political perspective and look at the impact of Brexit on something else, such as an industrial sector, or a company. Here the work would be an impact assessment and could range as widely as you like (business students are an obvious addition). This option is best for those who don’t normally teach the EU, or who are teaching outside Europe, since there will be global political and economic repercussions: consider, for example, impacts on NATO and US foreign or trade policy.

As always, the key consideration should be that you are clear about your learning objectives: what do you want to achieve from this? If you can keep this clear, then you’ve got some great opportunities waiting for you.

Learning from Teaching

CgV3SvnW8AQNSAZIt’s going to sound very pretentious, but all this travel is very disorientating. Exactly one week ago, I was sat in a seminar room in Hong Kong, helping people design simulation games, something that now feels simultaneously very familiar and very distant.

Amanda and I have posted already about these workshops (here), but given some of the things I’ve been doing since then, I wanted to pick up on a broader theme, namely of how we ourselves learn from the teaching we do.

Last night, I was in London, taking part in a panel discussion about Britain and the EU, as part of my other work, with an audience of school children. And that sentence already contains my first error.

Continue reading “Learning from Teaching”