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Europe is proud of its cultural heritage, whether it’s the Renaissance, beautiful icons in Ukrainian churches, Shakespeare, Bach or Truffaut. But perhaps Europe’s greatest contribution to world culture is the Eurovision Song Contest. If you’ve never seen this, you should watch it. Once. If you have seen it, your opinion will probably depend on your nationality. Essentially amused and dismissive in the west of Europe and apparently passionate and serious in the east.

The Eurovision Song Contest originated in a combination of technology and post-war national friendship. Before satellites, microwave transmission held out the possibility of live transmission of events across national boundaries. The Eurovision system was set up to trial international live broadcasting (partly on the back of cold war technology designed to survive nuclear war, but let’s not dwell on that). And the Swiss leadership of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) thought it would be a nice symbol of European friendship in the 1950s, to stage an international singing contest. The first was held in 1956 in Switzerland, with only seven countries (the Swiss won). The final on 26 May 2012 in Baku, Azerbaijan will feature forty-two countries. Armenia is not participating, owing to its troubled relationship with Azerbaijan, nor is Poland for some reason.

So the “Euro”vision song contest has nothing to do with the euro currency, or the European Union, or increasingly any historic conception of what is Europe. You can argue that Iceland and Russia are European, plus the various Former Soviet Union states. But nobody thinks Turkey is European, let alone Israel. And Morocco? Qatar has recently expressed interest in joining. The Lebanon used to be a member but withdrew over the matter of broadcasting the Israeli song.

The idea of a light entertainment contest that showed what Europeans have in common (poor taste perhaps) has exploded into a gigantic, colourful, absurd and kitsch demonstration of national differences, but in a mostly good-natured way. The number of countries hugely increased because of the end of the Soviet Union and the fragmentation of Yugoslavia. (The fragmentation continues: Scotland and Kosovo have both unsuccessfully asked to be included.) Viewers in the 1970s had probably never heard of Moldova or Bosnia and Herzogovina. Now the event is a glorious geography lesson.

Britain has a rather smug, ironic view of the whole thing, despite having won it five times (equal second place with France and for some reason Luxembourg). The undisputed winners are Ireland, with seven wins. The winner hosts the event and it was rumoured that the Irish broadcaster RTE was running up such huge bills hosting it that they tried to make sure Ireland stopped winning (there is an excellent “Father Ted” episode about this). The wonderful Riverdance show, which overnight modernised Ireland, originated as an interval entertainment during one of these performances and rapidly went on to be a global success, mainly because it was so much better than the Song Contest itself.

Britain’s condescending attitude arises from its massively successful commercial popular music industry, second only to the US in size and far larger on a per capita basis. On this basis the UK ought to win every year. But the Eurovision song is not designed to appeal to the people who download music. It’s meant to be more inclusive, appealing to a wider audience that includes your grandparents. So the winning song is normally atrocious and the winners vanish from public view soon afterwards. (A rare but dramatic example to the contrary is ABBA, who went on to become one of the most popular entertainment acts of the late twentieth century and Sweden’s biggest exporter, ahead of Volvo).

Britain’s entry in 2012 is the 1960s crooner Engelbert Humperdinck who, despite being named after a minor nineteenth century German composer, was born Arnold Dorsey and grew up near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, the official home of Stilton cheese (honestly, I’m not making this up). The brilliant idea of choosing someone so old, and sure to appeal to the older voters, was frustrated when Russia entered the Buranovskiye Babushki, which includes a woman even older than Englebert.

The friendly European solidarity theme has been eclipsed in recent years by overt reminders of nationalist solidarity and tension. Don’t expect Greece to vote for the German song for example. Do expect the former Soviet republics to vote for each other. As for Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, best not to think about that. The Eurovision Song Contest is therefore a reminder to the world of how strange Europe is: the most divided, fragmented continent with an extraordinary patchwork quilt of independent sovereign nations, whose influence still reaches far beyond its original borders, and which still more or less hangs together. There is something positive in that, even when you’re wincing at the latest contribution from Luxembourg.

Simon Taylor – Behind Blue Eyes