They call themselves the Big Four. Britain, Germany, France and Spain pick up the lion’s share of the bill for the European Broadcasting Union and help to fund tonight’s Eurovision Song Contest. In return, their singers sail into the final, encouraging home audiences to believe that they are in with a chance of winning.
Josh, who is 19 and from Essex, and Lena, also 19, from Hannover, both seriously believe that they can carry off the Eurovision trophy in Oslo. What are they up against? Belarussians wearing outsized butterfly wings? An androgynous Serb? Dancers dressed as trees? The competition cannot be that hard. Plus, their countries are underwriting the spectacle.
It should be a shoo-in, but it isn’t: the geopolitics of Eurovision has ensured that the paymasters are pushed to the margins. The brute reality of the new Europe, if Eurovision is any guide, is that small countries collude and plot to trip up the grandees from Old Europe.
Under the present voting system neither the Germans nor the British will win. This is testimony to the failure of these countries to build proper bridges within Europe. And, although France and Spain will as usual trade votes, they too will be struggling.
Consider last year’s winner, Alexander Rybak. His family came originally from Belarus. This made him the natural recipient of the East European vote. But clever Rybak speaks Norwegian, the language of his adopted homeland. This secured him votes from the Nordic and Baltic countries. To be safe, he sang Fairytale in English.
Derek Gatherer, a statistician and Eurovision analyst, notes the emergence of three main voting alliances. The first he calls the Balkan bloc. Croatia is at its heart, but it takes in Macedonia, Slovenia and Serbia.
Over the past few contests this bloc has become pivotal. Turks vote for Bosnia (because of the large Muslim community), the Bosnians vote for the Croats (because of Zagreb’s closeness to Sarajevo), Slovenes and Croats vote for each other. Albanians vote for Macedonians, Greeks vote for Serbians, Cypriots and Romanians for Greeks.
The only true challenger to the Balkan bloc is what Dr Gatherer calls the Viking Empire. The Danes vote for Iceland. Norwegians, Swedes and Danes cluster together. Swedes vote for Finns, who vote for the Estonians, who vote for the Latvians, who vote for the Lithuanians. That is how the hard rock Finnish band Lordi won in 2006.
Dr Gatherer has identified a third alliance — the Warsaw Pact. Poles and Russians tend to vote for Ukrainians. The pact extends to the outer rims of the former Soviet Union — hence the smart money placed on Safura, from Azerbaijan, who is singing Drip Drop.
Yes, there does seem to be tactit vote-trading between Britain and Ireland, and Germany can often count on Austria. But they have nothing that can match the Viking coalition or the Balkanistas. The result is a Terry Woganesque feeling that it is all rigged.
In that spirit one German impresario, Dieter Bohlen, has demanded that Greece vote for Lena, by way of compensation for the billions of euros earmarked for Athens. Fat chance. Europe doesn’t work like that any more.
And guess what? Greece, the sick man of Europe, may just end up winning with Giorgos Alkaios singing Opa. “They have the perfect song for the financial crisis,” says Christian Buss, of Der Spiegel. “It replaces euros with testosterone.” Not to mention that Alkaios wears his shirt open to the waist. Next year, then, in Athens, and the Big Four will sign the cheques.