If you want to understand Europe, ignore the convoluted EU and focus on the Eurovision Song Contest, argues Alex Dunn.
I would imagine that for the average American, European Politics is rather like cricket: overly complicated and not terribly interesting. Well I have news for you: Europeans feel the same way.
There are probably a few cricket-loving Englishmen who take umbrage at such a slight, but research has shown that the majority of Europeans have little understanding of the institutions which drive the European Union or EU. An Ipsos poll of citizens across 12 EU nations found that 62% had little interest in the 2014 European elections. Only 35% said that they would definitely vote.
One of the problems of understanding Europe is answering the question “Who’s in charge?”.
For nation states this is a straightforward question and I would guess that every American child of school age would be able to name Obama as their president.
In another survey, this time by Opinium, it was found that only 27% of voters in the UK knew that José Manuel Barroso was the president of the European Commission. Nearly a fifth of respondents thought that it was Angela Merkel (the German chancellor). This may seem like a shocking result, but a European Commission president is not a president in the way that Obama is a president.
Why is that? I have heard Americans complain that the instruments of government in the US are way too complex, in the same way that they complain that gas prices are way too high. Well in the same way that gas prices are far more expensive in Europe, EU governance is a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic nonsense. Tom Reid of the Washington Post hit the nail on the head when he said that “nobody would have deliberately designed a government as complex and as redundant as the EU”.
Of the seven (count them) institutions that drive the EU, we will restrict ourselves to the ones most easily mapped to US equivalents.
Legislative Branch – The EU Parliament.
Executive Branch – The European Commission and the The Council of the European Union, who are supposed to do the business-as-usual running of the EU, but seem to like keep themselves busy by taking Microsoft to court and banning the sale of fruit and vegetables with “abnormal curvature” (a rule which is ignored by most EU states).
Judicial Branch – The Court of Justice of the European Union.
There is also The European Court of Auditors, but the least said about them the better. All you need to know is that these guys are responsible for ensuring that the EU budget is spent wisely. As an EU tax payer, I can only conclude that this particular body is made up of some of the infinite number of monkeys that are working on the complete works of Shakespeare.
Whilst there is only one US president at any one time, the EU Parliament, European Council and European Commission have a president each.
The EU Parliament president is Martin Schulz (no, me neither).
The European Council president is Herman Van Rompuy. Still nothing? Well, judo black belt President Putin hunts tigers; Herman Van Rompuy writes haiku and used to be the prime minister of Belgium. Yes, Belgium, the country which had no government for 589 days in 2010-11 and nobody seemed to notice.
After Van Rompuy’s first speech to MEPs after being elected, Nigel Farage MEP pointed out that “We were told that when we had a president, we’d see a giant global political figure, a man who would be the political leader for 500 million people, the man that would represent all of us on the world stage … Well, I’m afraid what we got was you … I don’t want to be rude but, really, you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk and the question I want to ask is: ‘Who are you? I’d never heard of you. Nobody in Europe had ever heard of you.'”
It was a cruel and unseemly outburst from a Member of the European Parliament, but few commentators went to the effort of suggesting that this assessment was inaccurate.
It is not known what Farage thinks of the man who will soon replace Van Rompuy, president-elect Donald Tusk, the former prime minister of Poland.
The European Commission president as I mentioned above is José Manuel Barroso, but he is soon to be replaced by no lesser luminary than Jean-Claude Junker (former prime minister of Luxembourg). Junker became available for the job because his government collapsed as a result of a scandal with the Luxembourg security services (so something that Americans can relate to there). Notable quotes? “When it becomes serious, you have to lie.”
None of the above can be considered to be THE European President, which is just as well as none of them have the international states-person clout of someone like Obama. It has been said that in order to have credibility the EU needs to have a leader who can “stop the traffic” on foreign visits. The only stationary traffic that Van Rompuy has been responsible for is the terrible congestion on the Brussels ring road. So when Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland so colourfully said “F**k the EU”, to whom was she referring?
Nuland was upset by the EU’s stance on Ukraine, but there are plenty of other issues which the EU is dithering about; the terrorist threat posed by ISIS, the continuing financial crisis and reform of the EU itself.
Indeed the US appears frequently to be frustrated with Europe. When action is required, a US president must breathe a big sigh before picking up the phone to start his round-robin of calls to European leaders, a bunch of people he can barely recall the names of. Getting a truly unified action out of Europe is no easy thing. The voices of individual nations appears to generate a cacophony of discord, rather than the harmony envisioned by the federalist fantasists, who dream of further integration, even as angry citizens from Athens to Lisbon burn their cities in protest at EU meddling and austerity.
As is so often the case, Europe debates the hot social topics in its most powerful forum. Not the European Parliament, not the European Commission, not the European Courts of Justice (they have Fridays off in the summer so there simply isn’t the time). There is only one organ of the European Beast that is capable of a truly representative vox pop; if the European Parliament is the heart and the European Commission is the body, the Eurovision Song Contest is the mouth.
American readers will scratch their head at the following concept, but bear with me. Understanding the multi-layered meanings and significance of the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) offers the best way to grasp the psyche of the 750 million from the old countries. For example, far more insight can be read into the English by watching the four hours of the ESC than an entire box set of Downton Abbey.
In simple terms, the ESC is held annually and contested by European nations (although somehow, Israel has managed to gate-crash the party every year). Each nation sends an artist to perform a song. Once the singing is over, the songs are voted on by a combination of “experts” and telephone voting by the public. So far, pretty straightforward.
These days the songs themselves have little to do with the country, its people or culture. Many songs are in English, so trying to guess the country while listening to the song is not so straightforward.
The competition winner picks up the poisoned chalice of hosting the next contest, a significant challenge in terms of organisation and cost. Ireland, who hit a financially ruinous purple patch in the 90s, won three contests on the trot, which in retrospect, was financially imprudent.
The host country does not bear the full cost, with each national broadcaster paying fees to show the contest. The contributions are not, however equal. The so called “big five” (the UK, Spain, Germany, France and Italy) all cough up the most cash and automatically qualify for the final. Interestingly, the largest net contributors to the EU budget are the UK, Germany, France and Italy, countries who would probably argue that the Eurovision Song Contest gives them better value for money than the EU.
It may surprise Americans to learn that winning the competition has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the song or of the performance. Success depends upon a confluence of several political variables and it is this aspect which makes the ESC compelling viewing.
Each national “jury” presents the results of their vote via a dodgy video conference link. Grinning presenters bellow scores out whilst fiddling with an ill earpiece and talking over the host presenter. It is a bit like watching a grandparent get the hang of a Bluetooth headset.
The Scandinavians always vote for one another. Ireland could send U2 and the UK could muster its remaining Beatles and Sweden would still give 12 points to Norway. It is just the way things are.
Luxembourg has won twice, probably because they are considered too small to be offensive.
No one likes the French, particularly as their entries either take themselves terribly seriously, or make an ill judged attempt at humour.
Germany won in 1982 with a song, the title of which, translates into “A Little Peace”. The voting clearly identified who was going to win when Austria gave them 1 point, the symbolic slap in the face with a wet fish.
In this year’s competition back in May, Russia sent two teenage girls to perform and they were roundly booed by the crowd. Despite the fact that the girls sang a harmless song and sang it well, their being Russian meant that they had to face the ire of Euro-indigence at Vladimir Putin’s numerous offences (Ukraine, anti-gay stance, eyes too close together, etc. ). The girls could console themselves with the knowledge that two countries gave them maximum points – Azerbaijan and Belarus.
The UK telephone vote favoured the Polish song. In this case, this was nothing to do with the historic links between the two nations; Britain declaring war on Germany in 1939 in response to the invasion of Poland (yes, WWII started a whole two years earlier than you thought!) or the large number of Poles who have set up home in the UK. Poland’s performance successfully explored the visual appeal of attractive and large breasted Polish girls. We are Slavic, indeed.
The UK has largely given up on the ESC (their last success was in 1997) since the wars in Iraq enraged their European neighbours. Thus the nation that gave the world The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin have come last three times since 2003 (when they scored a big fat zero).
The political voting caused Terry Wogan, a veteran BBC broadcaster, to throw in the towel and stop commentating on the show, believing that the ESC was no longer a contest. He was missing the point. It never was a contest. It is Europe’s most representative source of debate.
European citizens feel frustrated and disenfranchised but on a Saturday evening in May, fuelled by whatever drink feels nationalistically appropriate, Europeans vent their spleen via telephone voting.
The ESC is a major event on the LGBT calendar, so this year, Putin’s gay unfriendly stance practically guaranteed a win for Austria’s transvestite performer with the fabulous outfit and incongruous, yet very neatly trimmed jet black beard. Rise like a phoenix, indeed.
Alex Dunn is a British ex-pat who currently lives in Luxembourg.