Political science students gain new perspectives on European politics through participation in Midwest Model EU
For Chadwick Eaton, a weekend trip to Bloomington, Indiana, might have been the next best thing to going to Brussels to glean a better understanding of the dynamics of the European Union.
Eaton, a junior political science major, was part of a group of 12 students and faculty members who represented the University of Missouri–St. Louis last month in the 25th Midwest Model EU on the campus of Indiana University.
The experience left an impression.
“It was a lot different than anything else I’ve ever done,” Eaton said. “Obviously, people had to act like they were a country representing certain values and issues and not being themselves.”
He admitted to having only limited knowledge of the supranational body when he enrolled in the Politics of the European Union course that served as his primer for the three-day event held April 20-22 at IU’s Memorial Union.
That’s typical of many of the students Joyce Mushaben, the Curators’ Professor of Political Science, has led in UMSL delegations over more than 20 years, including in 2013 when UMSL hosted the simulation.
Eaton was one of the UMSL students who represented Luxembourg this year with the others assigned to the delegation of the United Kingdom. He tried to assume the opinions and persona of Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s long-tenured Minister for Foreign and European Affairs, who has held the position since 2004.
He learned about the man through weeks of research and by watching a documentary titled “Foreign Affairs.” The 2016 film spotlights Asselborn’s work to make the voice of his small country of some 560,000 citizens heard on a continental and global stage.
Eaton did his best to echo that same voice among the other ministers on the Council of Foreign Affairs. That meant taking a stand against a proposal that aimed to create a program with an office in all 28 member nations to combat Russian propaganda.
He reasoned that Luxembourg, regarded as one of strongest countries in the world at protecting freedom of speech and freedom of expression, would, on principle, oppose a measure that could be construed as censorship. He noted that expression and assembly are also among the stated freedoms in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.
“That’s not the kind of stuff they do,” Eaton said.
Mushaben said that as issues get debated in the simulation, it’s pretty common to observe students abandoning their adopted country’s interests.
“They feel like they have to pass to stuff,” Mushaben said. “That’s a very American thing.”
One lesson from the Midwest Model EU should be just how complicated that can be in a body with 28 national interests. Winning qualified majority support – the body’s standard voting method requiring 55 percent of member states representing at least 65 percent of the EU population – is challenging. There are even some EU measures – including ones that impact common foreign and security policy – that require unanimous consent to be enacted.
In the weeks leading up to the three-day event, students from participating universities must draft and submit proposals that can eventually get put forward for debate by one of the four councils – Foreign Affairs, Economic and Financial Affairs, Justice and Home Affairs, and Environment.
They can originate from almost any issue.
Mushaben pointed to last year when UMSL was charged with representing Romania. One of her students learned about the declining black bear population in that country, a problem widely believed to be the result of climate change. He brought a proposal aimed at saving the black bear population to be taken up by the environmental council.
This year’s UMSL delegation was rushed to come up with its proposals and study the individuals its members were to represent in the simulation. That’s because the Politics of the European Union course was offered in a condensed eight-week format.
It created a lot of work in a short amount of time for the students – mostly juniors and seniors majoring in political science, but also Bettina Casad, an assistant professor of psychological sciences who wanted to learn more about the European Union before researching Euroscepticism in the United Kingdom this summer.
The students’ research gave them great insight into the wide array of views that exist among the different governments in the European Union as well as the breadth and scope of rules and regulations the body oversees to keep the peace.
The ongoing refugee crisis not surprisingly showed up often in proposals presented over the course of the weekend in Indiana.
An issue that played out less than Mushaben expected was Brexit, the UK’s vote last year to withdraw from the European Union. She wondered if that might have been because Prime Minister Theresa May only took the important step toward departure by signing documents triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March.
“Nobody really knows how it’s going to go yet,” she said.
The process of considering proposals brought its own lessons, even if the students sometimes struggled to grasp the full picture of a given issue.
“We’re students, so we don’t know necessarily everything about the ins and outs or even the social protocol and cultural protocol behind it,” said course teaching assistant and doctoral student Mary Painter, who served as Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for the Home Department in the United Kingdom. “But you really get a sense of how difficult it is to come to a consensus.
“When you’re learning about where different countries stand on different issues, you’re learning to deal with problems in a comparative way, and you’re also learning negotiation skills.”
There is plenty of fun to be had along the way too, particularly when it comes to assuming different characters.
Junior economics major Armin Cejvanovic got to play the role of European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker. Junior psychology major Savannah Price served as May. Still another of their classmates was Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, a man so known for the scarves he wears that they have their own Twitter account.
“You don’t often get to play pretend,” Painter said she told the students before they embarked on the trip. “I think I said, ‘When was the last time you got to pretend to be someone else?’ We had a student who got to pretend to be Boris Johnson so, ‘Go and have fun with that.’”
They had fun too interacting with the students from other universities, both during the formal proceedings and in the evenings after the work was done.
This year’s Midwest Model EU brought together students from 17 schools, including Ball State, Iowa State and Illinois and as far away as Florida Atlantic, Stephen F. Austin and the United States Air Force Academy.
That opportunity to meet and engage with other students is one more reason Mushaben believes so strongly in the experience.
“It’s such a learning device,” the professor said. “I used to joke that they only learn half as much as we would like them too, but they learn twice as much as they expect to.”
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