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''On Wednesday night, after several hours of meeting, the political heads of the party declared the negotiations to have failed and adjourned any decision to next month...'', so ends the report from the news reader. Or at least, it often does, when reporting on a legislation process at the European level. Do you feel frustrated and think: "If it was up to me, things would be different; things would get done!" Would they? Well, you can show the world how you'd do it, at the Model European Union (MEU) in Strasbourg! E&M writer Christian Diemer went to Strasbourg to find out what the MEU is all about, and meanwhile we interviewed the organiser of the MEU equivalent (EUROsimA) in Turkey.

Red Socks and Funeral Marches - A report from MEU 2010 strasbourg

The Concept of MEU

The simulation of political processes in the European Union aims to educate its participants about civics, current affairs and the organisational structure of political organs in the EU. Basically, every young European can participate by taking the part of a diplomat, a lobbyist or a journalist. Thus, the simulation is made as realistic as possible, as these three parties are also the most influential during European negotiations in real life. To prepare for the simulation, every participant does a large amount of research so that he or she will be able to play the respective role almost perfectly. By the end, participants have not only learned about the dynamics of European legislation and practiced their rhetoric skills, but, above all, participants have the opportunity to mingle for a few days with peers from all 27 member states of the European Union.

Lech Kaczynski died in a plane crash on the day the Model European Union 2010 began, which was a shock for most of the participants. My uncle died from a heart attack two days later, which was a shock for me.

All members of the MEU watched the video transmission of the Polish president's funeral ceremony, standing in the gallery of the huge, empty plenary hall with its brightly white shining walls (the 'real' MEPs all being in Brussels) and listening to the Funeral March of Frédéric Chopin’s piano sonata. It felt strange to find oneself, all of a sudden, acting as a more or less an official part of all those international delegations who were paying their condolences at the very same time in every European capital.

After the ceremony, on the way out of the hall, one of our lobbyist participants fainted, only recovering consciousness after a couple of minutes. Some were in a sort of shock on the way to lunch. It was nice that in these tough moments an unusual spirit of solidarity and friendship came to light – despite simulated or real competition which is of course a natural part of such a political simulation.

If you participate in an MEU event for the first time, you may worry whether you are qualified enough. Depending on how exotic your academic subject is, you might feel obliged to justify yourself towards all the political scientists, lawyers and economists on the floor. Relax: I study composition, musicology and arts management, and was thus one of the especially exotic rarities at the MEU, but even I never got the impression that I had to explain myself. Instead, I shared my exotic status with a rather colourful group of colleagues. There was for example Danielle, a 22 year old medic from Italy, who on the first evening ran around laughing and telling everyone that he had no clue about politics, and then became a party whip within my faction. Or Jonas, 22, a Dutch historian, who turned out to be a well-prepared, precisely negotiating engineer of strong coalitions in every coffee break. Or of course Matthias, 28, the two-metre-tall English teacher from a primary school, appointed to represent the decisions made by heads of state to press and parliament.

On the one hand, there were those simulation veterans who couldn't even remember their participation quota, hacks whose names were called out so often that everyone knew them by heart after the second day: "Mr. Da Graça Pereira for ALDE the Netherlands", raising his voice, singing with politeness, only to fire out a sharp-tongued broadside, ready for publication. Or "Mr. Coelho and Mr. Gelli for NGL Germany", two of only five representatives of the European leftist party who nevertheless managed to make an estimated two-thirds of all speech contributions.

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Photo: MEU 2010
The whole group of young Europeans who participated at MEU in Strasbourg

As a simulation novice you tend to forget one thing when you are confronted with this emergence of sovereignty and superior qualification: you sit there with your shaky notes in English in front of you, worried about losing the thread once you are (possibly) granted your minute of speaking time. You timidly raise your placard as you see your name on the screen at the very end of the speakers' list, rising on the list as each fellow-participant above you finishes his speech, rising, rising, while you break out in a cold sweat… In all this stress you tend to forget that by far not every one here even dares to say anything at all. So if you do, even if you fail: congratulations!

But relax and don't worry: even just quietly participating in the MEU is already a great thing and guarantees you to learn a lot. For example, even the most intimidating Sciences Po or Cambridge graduate proves to be a young, interested European, just like you, perhaps only with a bit more experience and self-confidence. You also learn that it's up to you to embark on the endeavour of breaking your internal limits. Above all, you learn that it is important to take a chance, to dare.

But what did we actually do from 10th till 17th of April, 2010?

''During the days of the simulation, make sure you sleep a bit and leave some days afterwards to let your body recover from a cold.''

Actually the work had already started earlier – and, take my advice, you should really take the opportunity to prepare thoroughly, as it will help alleviate your insecurities during the simulation. The MEU 2010 focused on the discussion of two drafts to become laws which were actually negotiated in the real European institutions: the Return Directive – on how to deal with illegal immigrants to Europe on a common judicial basis – and the Regulation on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).

So, how does this legislation process work in reality? The European Commission are the guys who present the drafts. Two committees have to agree with them in order to make them pass and take effect. These two committees are: the European Parliament (with over 700 MPs) and the European Council (the 27 heads of state). Of course, different interest groups and lobbyists try to exert their influence on the final shape of the text. And of course journalists will report on it. If Parliament and Council don't agree and reject a draft, the system reloads and mediating negotiations start.

How does this work at the MEU? Similarly, you apply for the corresponding roles: either as a member of the European Parliament, a member of the European Council, as a lobbyist, or as a journalist. The entire thing is a bit smaller than in reality: instead of 700 there are only 100 MEPs.

And from then on, you prepare for your role. You have to know what your country wants. You have to know what your party wants. You have to know what the opposition wants, what the interest groups want, what research says. You have to know how to keep out your private opinion, whether pre-existent or shaped in the course of the preparation. Skype becomes your most important tool when you start co-operating with your fellow party members. You'll research legislation documents, statistics, EU-websites and write position papers, notes, and references. You'll try to acquire an extensive knowledge of a topic you may have never heard of.

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Photo: MEU 2010
Participants at the MEU discuss their position paper in the coffee break

And that's only the preparation. During the days of the simulation, make sure you sleep a bit and leave some days afterwards to let your body recover from a cold. You wear a suit for five long days, a tie, a badge. You are briefed. You discuss. You amend. You vote. You raise your placard, you lower your placard. You use the coffee break to lobby for your ideas, to convince potential allies. You use the night to hatch strategies, to do your final research. The sophisticated terminology used in parliament gradually seeps into the ordinary conversations you have in your scarce spare time. You might explain yourself being tired in the pub in the form of a "point of personal privilege": "due to time constraints","seeing that" it is already 2 a.m. and "fully in line with the fact that" the next day you have to get up again at 6 a.m, you "refrain from" drinking another beer "sincerely apologising for the inconvenience" and "highly appreciating your colleagues' kind understanding".

And, other than in real political business, the week of MEU leaves no time for mediation. When the Model European Parliament had, on the penultimate day, adopted a significantly more lenient and human 'Returns Directive' than political circumstances in the real world would ever really have allowed, the Model Council opposed it. Next day: journey home, directive failed, all the work in vain.

Theoretically.... But of course nothing was in vain! Because MEU is not about the results in terms of laws, whether adopted or not. What you take home is the concrete insight into how Europe works. How politics works. How you work in such a framework. It makes you neither idealise nor despise the real politicians. It makes you go a step closer to maybe becoming one yourself.

''It's the profane and lovely details that let you remember that the others are just as human as yourself''

And as well as all that, MEU is fun, great fun. Little gossips and running gags helped to create the motivation to getting up after only four hours of sleep. The mockery for example floating around among the suit-wearing gentlemen about the plenary being "built in concentrically rising rows around the pharynx of a presidential décolleté". The charming owner of the latter even kept the MEU newspaper headlines busy: "Miss President's Love Affairs – Is This Really In Order?" (EU Naked, 15th of April, 2010). So did the red woollen socks of the best dressed MEP, a British chap with clear similarities to members of the Royal family. When asked for the deeper reason for this unusually trendy accessory, he replied, "no comment" - the socks remain enigmatic to the rainbow press…

It's these banal and charming details that make sure you remember that the others are just as human as yourself – and that the one thing that's even more sexy than being professional is being human and professional!

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