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Vision Quest

What has really unified Europe over the past half-century, say some wags, is not the European Union, but the Eurovision Song Contest. Founded in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union in an effort to build a broadcasting community in postwar Western Europe, the contest is now the longest continuously running TV program on the continent. It has expanded to include competitors from 24 nations; it is broadcast in virtually every country from the British Isles to the former Soviet Union; and this year it boasted 166 million viewers. Some of my German thirtysomething friends recently waxed nostalgic about growing up on Eurovision and suggested that the old Eurovision logo—a blue background with a white star burst—was the closest thing the continent had to a continental flag and the Eurovision theme song (the same as the “Masterpiece Theatre” theme song) the nearest substitute for a European anthem. “It used to give me chills to hear that theme [on television],” confided one of my pals, now a management consultant in Frankfurt. As Jan Feddersen explains in his German-language Eurovision fan book Ein Lied Kann Eine Brcke Sein (“a song can be a bridge”), “There was never a better `discovery' than this [Eurovision] Fanfare. A sound as a promise: Europe could leave behind its quarreling and discord and be united.”

Which is why Estonia, the host of this year's contest, pulled out all the stops. If Eurovision is as potent a symbol of Europeanness as the European Union, the hosts reasoned, surely they could use the competition as a gateway to membership in the European Union—which will rule on many of the former Soviet bloc countries' applications for membership next year. Estonia, which by virtue of winning last year became the first former Eastern bloc nation to host the contest, spent around $7 million on excessive stage lighting, “Solid Gold”-style dance programs, “Josie and the Pussycats”-esque tiered, circular dance platforms, and other gimmicks—making Eurovision by far the priciest event in Estonian history.

Eurovision, the Estonian government believes, has the potential to dramatically raise its country's profile among the people whose governments will determine EU admission. As former foreign minister Toomas Ilves notes, “People used to just stare blankly when I said I was from Estonia. But recently I and a number of my [Estonian government] colleagues have had the experience on official visits that people in places like Germany greet us very warmly and say, ‘Oh, Estonia! You won at Eurovision.’” Other former Communist governments feel the same way. Macedonia, Slovenia, and Estonia are paying for the costumes, travel expenses, and excessive entourages of their Eurovision representatives. And in February, Slovenia was briefly wracked by controversy after Sestre (“The Sisters,” in English), a band composed of three transvestites, won the Slovenian jury and, arguably, audience votes (a bitter dispute lingers) to represent the nation at Eurovision. Some conservative members of the Slovenian parliament were outraged. Panicked at the prospect of jeopardizing the nation's EU hopes, Slovenia's member TV station, which sponsored the delegation, defied parliament and sent Sestre to Tallinn anyway—complete with airline-stewardess costumes studded with “150,000 [red] Swarovski cut crystals.” (They finished fourteenth out of 24 competitors.) For their part, Lithuania and Estonia, which are applying with their Baltic neighbor Latvia to enter the European Union, each awarded the maximum twelve points to Latvia's Marie N, handing her a victory for the salsa-beat song “I Wanna” and giving Riga the chance to prove its EU bona fides when it hosts the contest next spring.

And Eurovision doesn't only help sell countries like Estonia and Latvia to the European Union; it helps sell the European Union to Estonians and Latvians. At the beginning of 2001, polls indicated that only 46 percent of the Estonian population favored joining the European Union. According to Prime Minister Siim Kallas, Estonians viewed the European Union negatively, largely because of their fear of EU regulations. (EU rules governing restaurant sanitation, for instance, enforced by the Tallinn government in preparation for admission, may likely put some Estonian restaurants out of business because they can't afford to renovate.) But after Estonia won the Eurovision Song Contest in May 2001, that figure rose to 54 percent by August. As Kallas puts it, “Suddenly Estonia could enjoy a side of Europe that was positive, a victory in a song contest.” And with a referendum on EU admission due in Estonia sometime next year, the government in Tallinn clearly hopes that this year's event sends those poll numbers higher still.

TO BE SURE, if Eurovision reflects European unity, it reflects European disunity as well. This year Austria, which bears a long-standing grudge against its Teutonic neighbor to the north, awarded Germany a mere one-point score; in turn, Germany gave its former annex zero. Greece and Turkey gave each other goose eggs—an annual tradition. Audience members, many carrying national flags and wearing t-shirts and face paint to match, sang impromptu nationalist tunes to football fight songs (e.g., “The Cup of Life,” “Latvia! Latvia!”). During Estonia's performance of its entry, “Runaway,” some audience members started singing the lyrics of the 1996 R. Kelly single “I Believe I Can Fly” to demonstrate the shameless similarity between the two tunes. Even nonparticipating countries were not spared. Norway, which holds the distinction of having received zero points in four separate contests and was therefore denied entry this year, was singled out for abuse. During a nontelevised dress rehearsal, the Estonian hosts sarcastically announced Norway as this year's winner. “See you in Oslo,” they chuckled.

Enthusiasm for European unity is also undermined by fears that pan-European trends will drown out national culture. From 1976 to 1998, Eurovision rules required competitors to sing in their native tongues. That rule was repealed in 1999, in large part because it was believed to give an unfair advantage to English- and French-speaking nations, whose songs were understood by a broader audience. As a result of the rule change, of the 24 entries this year, all but five were performed wholly or partly in English. The Macedonian and Bosnian entrants, who sang for the most part in their national languages, said the original rule should be reinstated. Marie N made a similar assertion the day after her victory, even though she had sung her winning song in English. And this spring a Dutch foundation called Liet International held a countercontest for minority languages, including Catalan, Basque, and Occitan, because they felt English-heavy Eurovision “hardly represent[s] the European diversity.”

For Estonia and other former Eastern bloc governments, however, the benefits of EU accession clearly outweigh the dangers of cultural assimilation. “The EU is very good at preserving minority cultures and languages,” Signe Kivi, Estonia's minister of culture, told me. Besides, says Prime Minister Kallas, there's another benefit to EU membership: “EU accession is crucial to assuring Estonia's final [spiritual and mental] break from the Soviet Union.” A good thing, too, given the comment of a Russian delegate at a pre-contest press conference: “We ask you to [appreciate] that we were until recently the leading culture of the world.” In other words, $7 million Estonian dollars well spent.

This article originally appeared in the July 1, 2002, issue of the magazine.