Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 13 May 2011
I have always wondered why SBS keeps broadcasting the Eurovision song contest year after year. How would any sane person survive a whole evening watching weirdly dressed Ukrainian folk singers, Moldovan punk rockers or Israeli transvestites? Who cares for cringeworthy presenters in glitter suits that were not even fashionable when they were invented? And I haven’t even mentioned the absurdly tedious scoring system.
For an Australian audience watching this bizarre extravaganza from afar, once again this weekend, there can only be one explanation. It is sheer schadenfreude. Australians, who all too often get belittled for a seeming lack of high culture that is supposedly ruling in Europe, the Eurovision demonstrates that not all that glitters on the old continent is gold either.
However, apart from the cultural reassurance that the European song contest provides, it also offers viewers some valuable insights into the state of the continent.
Europe is far less united than its political elites wish to believe. Now that may well be a good thing. Can you imagine how bland a Eurovision entry would sound if it had to be designed and approved by EU officials in Brussels? It would have the entertainment value of a media conference with EU president Herman van Rompuy. Having said that, his statements would probably be more engaging if he sang them out loud.
To put it positively, Europe can be a much more colourful and diverse place if you do not try to regulate all national peculiarities away. Even if the price you have to pay for such variety is the occasional Finnish shock rock band winning the contest: Remember Lordi in 2006? If you don’t, congratulations. You chose to forget wisely.
Unfortunately, there is a fine line between European diversity and European antagonisms. The old nationalisms that both the Eurovision and the European Union were meant to overcome are alive and well in both institutions. Far from bringing nations together in happy exchange, the old divisions are in fact becoming more visible over time.
There is no shortage of anecdotes concerning the telephone voting patterns in the Eurovision contest. Austria and Germany are traditionally united in mutual dislike, never giving points to each other. Turkish entries surprisingly receive the highest scores from countries with a strong Turkish migrant community. And Britain and Germany both benefit from British and German holidaymakers on the Spanish islands of Mallorca and Ibiza.
Beyond the anecdotes, there have even been half-serious academic studies dealing with the Eurovision song contest. In 2006, Derek Gatherer (whose main job as a molecular scientist ideally qualified him for dealing with European particularism) published a fascinating article by the obscure title ‘Comparison of Eurovision Song Contest Simulation with Actual Results Reveals Shifting Patterns of Collusive Voting Alliances’ in the even more obscure Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation. His research should have sounded alarm bells in Europe’s capitals.
Gatherer revealed that in the late 1970s, weak collusive voting only occurred between France and Britain. The rest of Europe still followed the ideal of voting for the best song (or the least bad).
Throughout the years, the pan-European spirit disappeared and old nationalisms became clearly re-established. First was the Nordic bloc of Denmark, Sweden and Iceland. Then a new cooperation between Cyprus and Greece emerged, followed by an extension of the Nordic bloc towards Norway and Estonia. By the early 2000s, Europe was firmly divided into five influence zones that Gatherer identified as ‘The Partial Benelux’, ‘The Pyrenean Axis’, ‘The Balkan Bloc’, ‘The Viking Empire’, and ‘The Warsaw Pact’.
At the time of publication in 2006, Gatherer was careful to avoid sensationalising his findings. If you took the Eurovision voting patterns as a metaphor for European politics “then the outlook for an expanded European Union is one grim inter-regional struggle”, he wrote. But maybe, the whole Eurovision circus was nothing else but “an expression of post-modern kitsch contempt for the established pop music industry”, in which case no political implications could be derived from it.
In hindsight, Gatherer was too optimistic. As the crisis of the eurozone has demonstrated again and again, all the rhetoric of European unity did not manage to abolish national interests and stereotypes.
Just take the personal matter of who should replace Jean-Claude Trichet at the helm of the European Central Bank. For a long time, the Germans believed that Bundesbank chief Axel Weber would be Trichet’s natural successor. But then Weber resigned from his post, which left the Italian central banker Mario Draghi as the only plausible candidate.
By all accounts, there is nothing wrong with Mario Draghi. He is a well-respected banker and financial expert. However, he is Italian and particularly the Germans fear nothing more than trusting “their” money to an Italian.
You have to understand the psychology involved. To the average German, Italy was a popular holiday destination but not a serious economic force. Its old Lira banknotes always felt so shoddy, the Italians had probably found a way of printing them looking old and used. And if you kept a stash of Italian banknotes from your last holiday, you could be pretty sure they would be worth a little less next time you visit.
After this practical experience, it is asking too much of the Germans to accept an Italian as the defender of their money. Conceivably, they would rather make Signor Draghi their new federal president or trust him with managing the German soccer team. But give him control over the currency that was supposed to be as hard as the old Deutschmark? You must be kidding.
The national antagonisms are also visible in Daimler’s decision to sell its stake in aircraft manufacturer EADS. The German government is currently considering purchasing Daimler’s 15 per cent in the company – if only to stop the French government from doing so. The involvement of both governments makes a mockery out of the notion that Europe had created a common market with free movement of capital, goods and services. Apparently, perceived national interests still weigh heavier than any lofty European ideals, let alone a commitment to free markets.
None of this will be talked about this weekend when Düsseldorf hosts this year’s Eurovision contest. And a good thing, too. So we can all just sit back and enjoy watching the event. For all its quirks and embarrassing moments, it’s still more fun than following European politics.