SAIS Europe students learn negotiation skills as part of Prof. Michael Leigh’s Brexit simulation

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By Will Marshall

February 7, 2020

BOLOGNA, Italy – Students of Professor Michael Leigh’s Fall 2019 course, The European Union: Integration or Disintegration?, were treated to a taste of the painstaking process surrounding the Brexit negotiations through an in-class simulation over the course of two weeks which included a working dinner at the professor’s home in Bologna.  

Placed in a fictional post-Brexit timeline, students (including this reporter) were divided into two teams representing either the EU or the U.K. Students were tasked with concluding a deal on the U.K.’s future participation in Horizon Europe, the EU’s next research and innovation Framework Program, a technical term given to the EU’s multi-year research strategy. Professor Leigh then assigned chief negotiators for each team who were responsible for overseeing a bevy of technical experts, legal advisors, political operatives, and communications officers.  

It was an all-encompassing simulation, which not only focused on the technical aspects of the deal, but required students to navigate tough political questions on either side of the English Channel – the same questions which may no doubt frustrate negotiations in real world circumstances.

One of the most controversial topics involved the level of visa-free travel that the U.K. would afford to EU researchers. To avoid having the final deal pilloried as “Brexit in name only” by the fictional media and public, the U.K. team ceded very little ground on migration policy. The EU team had its own red-lines. Wary of offering an overly favorable, the negotiators representing Brussels made clear they would not allow the U.K. to “cherry pick” the best aspects of the deal while ignoring more onerous regulations.

Public relations also played an important role in the simulation. In a mock press conference, the communications officers faced the thankless task of selling the final deal to a room full of hostile reporters. Students appeared to relish in temporarily switching roles to lob a barrage of tough questions at the joint EU-U.K. press team, which showed admirable dedication as they stuck to their prepared talking points.  

The two-week negotiations featured at least a dozen meetings between teams on both sides. During that time, students were often seen squabbling over the minutia of EU data protection requirements in the school’s student lounge and at Giulio’s bar. In fact, despite holding two formal, in-class negotiating sessions, most of the work was conducted in informal settings where negotiators could soften their positions and test the resolve of their counterparts, away from the prying eyes of the public.

One informal session was held at the home of Professor Leigh, who invited students to a working dinner during which they were encouraged to continue hashing out the details of the agreement. Professor Leigh also used the occasion as a forum for reflection, calling on each participant to give an assessment of the exercise up to that point. Perhaps it was the familial living room setting, or the fact that many guests were well-lubricated with house wine, regardless, Professor Leigh proved adept at coaxing candid answers from his audience. Afterwards, several participants said the hospitality shown by Professor Leigh and his Chilean-born wife, Ventura, was the highlight of the exercise.

Chief negotiator for the EU team, Niki Hintermayer (MA, 2021), said he was impressed with the enthusiasm with which fellow students approached the exercise. He also praised the seriousness of the negotiations and attention to detail displayed by both sides.

“For me personally, it was exciting to improve my negotiating skills, to stand vigorously by our positions and to be able to coordinate the group,” Hintermayer said. “To hold the team together and have the bird’s eye view over the whole process required a lot of precision and composure.”

Hintermayer also praised his counterpart on the U.K. side, Megan Rutkai (BA, 2021), for her poise despite being the youngest member of the class.  

“Leadership is not a question of age: the calm and enthusiasm with which the Chief Negotiator of the U.K. negotiated and communicated was the main determinant of [the U.K. team’s] success,” Hintermayer said.  

When asked about why he incorporates the simulation in his curriculum Professor Leigh said the aim is to give students hands-on experience which brings to life issues they may be studying in their courses.

“Role playing enables them to tackle directly competing interests and to seek negotiated solutions,” Leigh said. “It also gives them a sense of the political pressures that influence decision-making.”

As the former Director-General for Enlargement at the European Commission, Professor Leigh has been involved in high-stakes policy negotiations at the upper echelons of the EU. It is from these experiences that the simulation draws its realism.

“Our simulation paralleled real life negotiations on the substance of the issues at stake and the fundamental policy dilemmas involved,” Professor Leigh said.

Now in his fifth year of running the simulation, Professor Leigh has used each iteration to improve the format and perfect the experience for students.

“I adapted the process to reflect feedback from students in previous exercises in a number of ways,” Professor Leigh said. “The most important was going beyond a single negotiation round so that students could see how the process evolved over time.”

He already has plans to tailor the exercise further based on feedback from the last course.

“Two further changes I will make in the next exercise…[are] providing the negotiating scenario and briefing material earlier in the semester and ensuring that the process is open-ended,” Professor Leigh said.

For the closing session of the negotiation, Professor Leigh invited Scarlett Varga, Head of Development at the Brussels-based economics think tank, Bruegel, to offer feedback on the simulation. Varga, who has experience running similar simulations for Bruegel with true subject matter experts, called the simulation surprisingly realistic – especially in terms of the language used in official communiques.  

“On occasion, I did a double take,” Varga said. “I thought I was in a meeting in Brussels.”

At the end of the final negotiating session, Professor Leigh shared parting thoughts about the importance of putting the exercise in perspective. He recounted how earlier in his career as an EU official, he spent three years meticulously “negotiating fish.” The takeaway: seemingly insignificant issues can be enormously political when policy decisions affect real people.

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