There’s an unhappy phrase – possibly apocryphal, but enduring – attributed to the French diplomat Jean Monnet, the spiritual father of the European Union. “If I were to do it again from scratch,” Monnet supposedly said about the project of continental unity, “I would start with culture.” Whether or not he ever uttered those words, they have come back with a vengeance over the last five years, as the Euro has cratered, half a dozen national economies have been pushed to the brink of default, and far-right parties have gained power in countries including France and Finland. In good times, Europe’s politicians talked a big game about unity and brotherhood. When the going got rough, they have been more than happy to let Greece crumble rather than stand together.
And yet this week 180 million Europeans are set to bask in the glory of Europe. The Eurovision Song Contest, taking place in Vienna this year, has grown from a plucky seven-nation sing-off into the world’s largest non-sporting event this side of CCTV’s Chinese new year gala. In this 60th anniversary year the celebrations have extended all the way to Australia, a Eurovision-obsessed country that has been given a wild card to compete this year. It is enormous, Eurovision, and if all you hear is schlocky pop, you are not listening closely enough.
I’m not European, and usually my musical tastes run more to Alban Berg than ABBA. But I have been watching Eurovision for more than a decade now, starting when I watched a grainy livestream of the event from Estonia in 2002. Over the years I have come to believe that the Eurovision Song Contest, more than any other institution, offers the best possible model for the construction of a new Europe. More than football, more than Erasmus, more than Skype and Easyjet, Eurovision proposes how Europe can work: as somewhere modern, joyous, accepting of the East, tolerant of Muslims and immigrants, proud of difference and yet proudly united. With the EU locked in existential crisis, an already beloved model for Europe will be on display in Vienna this week, confetti and all.
This is not bloviating, and this is not clickbait – this is a serious proposal. If Europe really wants to build a common future, bearded divas are a good place to start.
Like almost everything with the prefix euro-, the Eurovision Song Contest has its roots in the aftermath of World War Two. In 1955 the young European Broadcasting Union, a consortium of national broadcasters, conceived of a single programme across multiple networks, transmitted simultaneously across borders. They found a model in the newly founded San Remo Festival, and created a musical celebration that pitted seven countries against one another in a friendly competition in which national pride would go hand in hand with European solidarity. (The BBC was a founding member of the European Broadcasting Union, but the UK did not participate in the first Eurovision – they missed the deadline.)
For all its technical derring-do – a transnational broadcast was no small feat in the years before satellite television – Eurovision was a political project as much as an entertainment. Decades before the Maastricht treaty, Eurovision offered a template for a multilingual, diverse, yet united Europe, and when the song contest has become intertwined with real-world politics, it’s almost always been for unity’s sake. The Portuguese entry of 1974 served as the signal for rebel army officers to launch the Carnation Revolution. More recently Ruslana, the Ukrainian singer who won the 2004 contest in a Xena the Warrior Princess getup, helped lead that year’s Orange Revolution and later became one of the most prominent leaders of the pro-European Euromaidan movement.
That political resonance continues today, not least in the expansion of Eurovision to the former communist bloc. One of the saddest aspects of the failure of the euro is its obscuring of the much more successful project of the European Union, which is enlargement. It was hardly preordained that less than thirty years after the end of the Cold War, Europeans would take it for granted that they could hit the beach in Croatia or have a stag do in Vilnius. (We might remind ourselves that Vienna is further east than Prague; discount airline passengers headed to Conchita Wurst’s hometown usually land in Slovakia.) Five former states of the USSR have now hosted Eurovision: Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Russia, and the rather notorious Azerbaijan, who spent millions masterminding their Eurovision victory, complete with fireworks. Serbia won it, too, with a lesbian power ballad in Serbo-Croatian. Brits who can’t abide their perpetual failure at Eurovision like to grouse about newer entrants’ tendency towards voting for one another, but I still get choked up at the spectacle of nation after nation casting its vote for a pan-European festival more open to the east than even football. Skopje calling!
From pop to politics
When Conchita Wurst, the Viennese drag queen with impeccable posture, swanned to victory in Copenhagen last year, she tearily proclaimed that “this night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom.” (She is not the first gender-queer winner of Eurovision; Israel’s Dana International, who unlike Wurst is transgender, won with Diva in 1998.) Eurovision has done wonders for gay visibility across Europe, but not only that. While the European political sphere admits Islamophobic sentiment of often shocking intensity, no fewer than four Muslims have won it all on the Eurovision stage since 2003 – among them the incomparable Loreen Talhaoui, a raven-haired Swede of Moroccan descent. Euphoria, the greatest Eurovision song in twenty years, netted the most douze points in the history of the competition, and set off a pan-European love story in which a Muslim embodied the joy and the concord of a single population from Dublin to Bucharest. (For crying out loud, the name of the song begins with E-U!) Loreen, who went out of her way to meet Azeri opposition activists at that year’s contest in Baku, is the very model for a contemporary European – English-speaking but proudly Swedish; invested in a local tradition but gazing across borders, to the east and to the south; and, more than anything, willing to dream big and to believe in change at a moment when so much of Europe prefers retrenchment.
In 1990, the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest was Insieme: 1992, by the Italian crooner Toto Cutugno – a schlocky ballad in the form of an ode to Maastricht. “Unite, unite, Europe,” went the chorus, a singalong English refrain. And so Europe should. But how? The most terrifying future for the old continent is one in which the economic suicide cult now ensconced in Brussels and Berlin exerts a monopoly on the idea of unity, and ‘Europe’ becomes a synonym for economic devastation and political impuissance. Europe can be so much more: a place where union means something much more than a common market, and where solidarity and diversity are not at odds.
I am hardly saying that Conchita Wurst should be president of the European Council, but the mandarins of the EU would do well to take a lesson from a diva immeasurably more popular than them, and who has brought Europeans together in a way they cannot dream of. In debt-wracked Athens as much as prosperous Frankfurt, Europeans are losing their faith in unity via diversity – and given the performance of their political leaders since the crash, who can blame them? But the real hope of Europe is on stage in Vienna this weekend, somewhere amid the waving flags and the disco balls.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.