Eurovision is the only vision Europe deserves. The Financial Times, 18 May 2006

Last week, as it does every year, Europe Day fell on May 9, marking the day in 1950 when Robert Schuman presented his suggestion for a united Europe. Few people, bar those employees of the European Commission in Brussels who get the day off, bothered to celebrate. Compare that with the garish spectacle set to burst onto television screens this Saturday, when 37 European countries join battle in Athens for the Eurovision song contest. From the Atlantic to the Urals, from Kiev to Cardiff, everyone is invited to the party.

This year Eurovision is 51 years old – older than the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union. Watched by hundreds of millions of viewers across the continent, it also appears to be far more popular than any of the festivals or events dreamt up by the eurocrats in Brussels. Eurovision is an orgy of tacky disco music and instantly forgettable tunes, but it is also a powerful monument to the European project and a barometer of its health.

Eurovision was established in 1956 by Marcel Baison, a French music producer, with the noble purpose of nudging the peoples of Europe closer together. Like the EU, it traditionally boils with ancient grudges and simmering hatreds. In the round of voting which follows the competition, each participating country is invited to cast votes for the others. Just like the horsetrading which goes on daily in the European parliament, tactical voting and naked partisanship rule the roost. The Irish have traditionally avoided voting for the Brits; the Turks and the Cypriots have almost never voted for each other and the Greeks almost always have given the maximum 12 points to Cyprus; the Brits routinely fail to appreciate the efforts of the German entrant. After a row between Serbians and Montenegrins last month over who should field their joint entry, it was decided that they should both abstain from this year’s competition. Security guards had to protect one hopeful band from a baying mob.

If Eurovision is politics sublimated into song, then the continent is increasingly dancing to a different tune. Just like any worthy project aimed at ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, the contest is routinely sabotaged by lingering national animosities. But some countries are learning to stick together. The latest psephological study of Eurovision results, published by Derek Gatherer of Glasgow University last month, revealed that the contest is skewed by “patterns of collusive voting alliances” – mutual back-scratching, in other words – led by a “Viking alliance” of Scandinavian and Baltic states, a “Balkan bloc” rooted around Croatia and a “Warsaw Pact” of Russia, Poland and the Ukraine. Last year Greece won the Eurovision; the year Ukraine were the victors, the year before Turkey won. All three results, according to Gatherer, can be attributed to “block voting” by groups of countries in the east.

This kind of neighbourly voting is giving rise to dark mutterings among western European entrants who fear they are being squeezed out of the tournament. Under the auspices of Eurovision, even the Greeks and the Turkish have managed to bury the hatchet; last year, jaws dropped when the Turkish jury awarded the maximum 12 points to the Greek entry which went on to win the contest. But international relations have always been about forming advantageous alliances, and have never been for the squeamish.

Old Europe, increasingly snobbish about the competition from the east and a little paranoid about its status, stands like a wallflower in the corner of the dancehall. It is being beaten at its own game by a dynamic new Europe which is not afraid of making a fool of itself to get ahead – and does not mind getting a leg up from friends or even former enemies along the way.

For some years now, the European Commission has been scratching its collective head for ideas on how to rebrand Europe to distinguish it from the US and China. After the floated European constitution was thrown out by France and the Netherlands last year, it has redoubled its efforts to identify the “core” of Europe. Early this month, Jose Manuel Barroso, Commission president, announced he had commissioned a panel of branding experts to decipher the essence of European identity and recommend ways to sell it back to its citizens. If the Commission’s brand consultants are in need of inspiration, they could do worse than invest in some EU-regulation tinsel and party hats and make the pilgrimage to Athens on Saturday. The latent rivalries among the participants in Eurovision demonstrate the difficulties of imposing an overarching brand on the idea of Europe. But they also point the way towards an alternative European project, one driven not by subsidies and red tape but by popular culture, bad taste and kitsch humour.

It is bland, and as kitsch as Esperanto, but maybe Eurovision is the only vision Europe deserves. And as only Europeans can take part, there is no chance of anyone being beaten by an American.