Yesterday was another engaging day for our students. Thursday was a public holiday in Brussels, so our usual classroom location was closed. Undaunted, the group met in the shadow of the European Parliament, and from there Associate Professor Vicki Birchfield led the group to a nearby café, where the students enjoyed coffee, tea, and orange juice while being quizzed on the structures of the European Union and our site visits this week.
After a lunch break, the group reconvened outside the Parliament’s museum, the Parlamentarium. After the security check, we were ushered into a private section of the museum, where the students took part in a role playing game that put them in the position of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). For reasons we would shortly discover, the simulation is incredibly popular and requires reservations be made 3-4 months in advance. But, as we have seen over and over again throughout our three weeks here, the incredible amount of work Professor Birchfield puts in throughout the academic year to lay the groundwork for the study abroad paid off. We had our spot! Please note that in what follows, links point to uploaded videos of the students.
The simulation is very well put together. The entire thing is run through smart phones, which send the students to specific locations within the game playing complex as well as provide important information. The students were divided into 4 political groups, which roughly reflect the dominant groups in the Parliament. After a short briefing, they dispersed to their group ‘headquarters’ to choose leaders (spokespersons) and hear from virtual political group leaders as to their political position on two fictitious-but-plausibly-real issues: water distribution and networking across Europe, and human ID microchip implanting.
After their party briefing, students were split up to hear from virtual constituents and lobbyists as well as debate each other on the issues.
After the Information gathering and political debating, the students were separated into two groups, where they negotiated on the amendments to the directives presented to them by the European Commission. The contestation was spirited, and it was clear to the faculty that the students were taking the game very seriously.
After these sessions, the students came back together to hear from their spokespersons as to why they should vote yes or no on the amended directives. It was a great chance for the students to practice policy making through persuasion.
Following the vote, the students were sent back to their committee rooms, where condescending virtual members of the European Council informed them that the Parliament’s position was not acceptable to the member states of the EU. The students engaged in a complex virtual negotiation with the Council, only to be interrupted by an ‘emergency’; an earthquake in a fictitious European city had changed the political calculus surrounding the issues. After watching a news report on the crisis, the students returned to their negotiations with the Council, to find that the member states had changed their position on the water and microchip issues. The students were able to find a compromise (defined in one of our previous site visits as an outcome that makes everyone equally unhappy—a logic the students also invoked) amongst themselves and with the Council. They then came together for a ‘second reading’ of the two pieces of legislation, both of which passed.
It is difficult to adequately reprensent here the rich experience of the game. Nonetheless, I hope something of that richness comes through. The students did an excellent job, and the game was a great way for them to get direct experience with the complexity of policy making within the EU, and some perspective on what a tremendous accomplishment it is for the EU to continue to operate and strive to make the lives of Europeans better.