ONE after another they are calling in sick. First, Portugal and Poland and now, short of an economic miracle, Cyprus and Greece. For an event that is meant to be one of the most unifying in Europe, next year’s Eurovision song contest is starting to look unusually thin on the ground.

In quick succession last week, all four countries announced, or intimated strongly, that they would not be participating in the jamboree. With the exception of Warsaw, each cited the debt crisis.

“It’s a great shame, very sad,” said the Greek singer Nana Mouskouri, who was discovered when she performed ‘A Force de Prier’, Luxembourg’s entry in 1963. “I couldn’t perform for Greece back then as we didn’t have television ... I know the world progresses,” she said, “but the whole thing has just got so big, so expensive.”

That is why the competition that has come to be associated with kitsch costumes and iffy music has had to take a back seat for recession-hit nations. Amid the business of meeting budget targets, there is, alas, no room for froth or frizz.

“Public television ought not to participate in this year’s Eurovision contest in correspondence with overwhelming public sentiment,” said a Greek government spokesman, Simos Kedikoglou. “It is very unlikely that Greece will take part.”

With Greeks brought to their knees by the cuts demanded in return for keeping their insolvent economy afloat, officials insisted it would be “distasteful” to be seen to be competing in a contest “that is all about sequins and stage effects”.

“It’s not just that we don’t have the money to pay for the broadcasting rights and participation fees which, at 120,000 euros, we simply don’t have, at this juncture it would be morally wrong,” said an official at the state-controlled channel.

In Cyprus, whose financial woes were triggered by its banking sector’s exposure to Greece, the state broadcaster PIK went so far as to describe participation as a “possibly provocative” move, while Poland issued a statement saying: “After a very careful analysis we made the difficult decision not to take part in the contest in Malmo.” It will be the second year in a row that Poland has withdrawn.

Just days after tickets went on sale, there are mutterings as to whether, after 58 years, the institution Europeans love to lampoon can survive — at least as a phenomenon that reflects Europe.

Organisers brush off such suggestions, making the point that 38 countries have already signed up for the event — the most-watched show on European TV.

But agents such as Yannis Koutrakis, who represents Mouskouri and has looked after Greek celebrities who have participated in the show, beg to differ. “You’ve got so many countries, like Azerbaijan and Georgia, that are not exactly European which are now participating,” he said.

“If countries at the heart of Europe leave then what is left? Is it really a European song contest?” — The Guardian, London

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