It has been a while since I last wrote about teaching about the EU through simulation games. Now, in light of further experience, it is high time to return to this topic. I’ve now run 4 negotiation simulations at the College of Europe in Bruges (together with my colleagues Pierpaolo Settembri and Costanza Hermanin), and have observed one at Sciences-Po Aix-en-Provence (having provided Philippe Aldrin some tips about how to run such a simulation).

In the Bruges case there are between 90 and 100 students a year, and in Aix there are 70. In both cases the idea is to simulate the EU’s Ordinary Legislative Procedure – so this means players representing Member States (Council or COREPER), the European Parliament, and the European Commission. In addition there are non-legislative actors in both games – lobbyists, campaigners, journalists.

The idea is not to simulate how the EU as a whole works. There is no European Council. No high level politics. There’s no Comitology either. The aim in both cases is to examine how everyday politics in the EU institutions works – not least because the students in both Bruges and Aix-en-Provence are going to be working in their post-university lives on everyday Regulations and Directives like this, rather than the high politics of summits.

The 5 topics (4 Bruges, 1 Aix-en-Provence) negotiated have been:

  • The Conflict Minerals Regulation (EUR-lex)
  • Airline Passenger Rights (EUR-Lex)
  • The Dublin IV Regulation on asylum policy (EUR-Lex)
  • Regulation preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online (EUR-Lex)
  • Regulation on minimum requirements for water reuse (EUR-Lex)

The choice in each case has been to find a piece of legislation where the Commission Proposal is available already, but there is no Council General Approach or 1st Reading in the European Parliament. This means finding a different topic every time the game is a run – more work, but ultimately this is vital. Getting the Commission team to draft a Directive or Regulation is too much to ask (and the danger they completely miss the point would be too high), while running a game on a topic where negotiations are done – in the connected age – in the end leads to students just Googling what happened and modelling their approaches on what they find.

The importance of the topic chosen is, thinking back over the five games I have seen, more important than I might have thought. Two of the five topics (airline rights and terrorist content) worked extremely well. These issues were things the students could relate to – they all know what it’s like to be stuck on a delayed flight, and are adept at understanding the limits (or not) of freedom of expression online. These topics were also multi-faceted enough, and diverse enough (plenty of positions from lobbyists and campaigners, and complex positions within the institutions), to lend themselves to diverse and complex negotiations that nevertheless did not get out of hand.

The three other topics – for different reasons – worked less well. Water reuse was simply too narrow – at least the way the Commission drafted it. Position papers of stakeholders were scarce and there are just two news stories about it (one on Euractiv, one on Politico – and no more!) The students hence had to make things up to make it interesting, but then the realism of the simulation took a hit. Conflict minerals had too much of an outside-the-EU component to it – this might have worked better for IR students doing an EU module. And the Dublin Regulation was simply too politically messy – students playing the roles of MEPs or Member States in COREPER were seeking to solve problems that have dogged the EU for years. Yes, solutions were found, but compromises that were not befitting of the level that the game was actually seeking to simulate.

The sweet spot then is something interesting, concrete, multi-faceted, current, but not the biggest topics the EU as a whole struggles with.

Related to that there are two classic problems that seem to keep cropping up as ways out of tight spots in these games: throw money at a problem, or just split the difference on the numbers / limit values in the proposal. In reality how the EU would deal with water reuse, and how any EU funds to support Member States in their water reuse would be allocated, would be separate, not thrown together into the same Regulation. Or a calculation of the number of hours it takes to remove terrorist content from the internet would be based on statistical evidence, not just having negotiators plump for a number half way between what is in the Commission draft and what some lobbyist told them.

I have long wondered what to do about these sorts of bending reality issues. In the College of Europe games these problems generally right themselves as the students have plenty of time. In shorter games introducing some sort of teacher who plays the Commission Legal Expert or something like that could act as a brake on these excesses.

In terms of allocation of roles: out of experience this should not be done randomly. Without the considerable time engagement of some players in the game (Rapporteur, Commissioner, Council Presidency, at least one of the journalists) the game will not work. The vast majority of the roles can then be played well or badly, giving the students the opportunity to excel or not depending on their engagement. Some roles – the Presidency teams, or Commission Director General, or the marginal political groups in the EP – have a harder task to achieve relevance, but even there relevance is possible to achieve – especially with some creativity in the latter case. I would aim for roughly equal numbers of players in the Council and Parliament sides of the game, and no group in the EP played by just one student alone. One student per Member State in the Council works fine however.

The next issue concerns the conduct of meetings – their rules, and their timing. Here the Bruges approach works – take all the standard rules of procedure from the European Parliament and Council of the European Union, and start with those as a basis. The only issue can be deadlines – these can be compressed to be appropriate to the game (2 days for an Access to Documents request rather than 15 working days in real life for example).

But the formal rules are only part of it. How a chair actually organises a meeting, and who s/he chooses who can speak, and to whom to allocate speaking time, is a definite skill. Here some video of actual Brussels meetings might be a good idea to illustrate things (although I do not have that at present – getting EP video is easy, from inside Council somewhat harder, but not impossible). How Trialogues work is a bit of a black box, but here some verbal guidance can be given – together with an explanation of how to produce a 4 Column Document.

A decent game also needs at least 5 meetings for the main players to ensure basic accuracy of the simulation – a EP Committee and a COREPER, then a Trialogue, and then a further EP Committee and Council to see if the institutions can agree what was agreed in Trialogue. A Stakeholder Dialogue Meeting with the EP, and a Commission Midday Briefing and/or a EP Press Conference with the Rapporteur are useful additions. Additional EP Committee meetings or COREPERs can be added according to the time available.

There are also four technical prerequisites.

Twitter is central to Brussels-EU communication, so a Twitter tool is very useful – this post explains how we did this in Bruges in the early days but we have refined it subsequently, using the Qvitter theme to make it look much better, and using Shoyu (iOS) and AndStatus (Android) apps to enable students to access the content on smartphones. Configuring GNU Social, the software to use for the Twitter tool, remains a bit of a headache though – you need to know how PHP and MySQL work to make it all function.

The public communication in a game – especially for stakeholders and journalists – needs a blogging system. Here self installed WordPress configured in its multi-user variant does an excellent job, as each student can then tailor the look and feel of their site to the needs of the actor they are playing.

Live streams of public meetings (EP Committee meetings for example) are best done with the Live function in the Youtube app – the embed link from this can be used in the Twitter tool and/or on blogs, making this option more flexible than Periscope or Facebook Live.

Lastly some sort of cloud based document sharing system – where files can selectively be shared with just some students but not everyone – avoids having to send all of this around by email.

So that’s a quick little summary of what’s on my mind about EU simulations just at the moment. At some point I will draw more of these elements together into a kind of downloadable toolkit. And of course if you have questions or critique do send me a message or leave a comment!

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