It’s that time of year again where Europe comes together for the Eurovision Song Contest, an annual singing competition which pits the majority of Europe (and Australia) against each other for the title.
Eurovision is supposed to be a non-political event. Under European Broadcasting Union (EBU) broadcasting rules, the Eurovision Song Contest ‘shall in no case be politicized and/or instrumentalized’. European broadcasters have to ensure that ‘No messages promoting any organization, institution, political cause’ can occur throughout the entire competition. Otherwise, the country faces disqualification.
But how realistic is this? Can Eurovision remain apolitical (or, perhaps, has it ever actually been apolitical?).
As you may or may not know, this year’s Eurovision Song Contest has come under close scrutiny. After Israeli artist Netta won the competition in 2018, many have used the event to voice their outrage against the Israeli government and its treatment of Palestinians.
In January, a number of British figures signed a letter which called for the BBC to cancel the coverage of this year’s contest. Signatories included Vivienne Westwood, Maxine Peake and the band Wolf Alice. In response, Stephen Fry and Sharon Osbourne were two figures to respond, signing a letter which reminded that Eurovision was about the “spirit of togetherness” and stressed that a cultural boycott was “not the answer”.
From this, one must question why there is such a fuss over the coverage of a singing competition.
To begin with, the song contest is a staple European event which has run for over 60 years. Whilst its importance in the UK has deteriorated over the years, its popularity with other European countries has continued to grow, and on average, at least one-quarter of Sweden’s population watch the final each year. With great popularity comes great attention – this is an event which has the eyes of millions across not only Europe, but the world.
But most importantly, whilst the show attempts to avoid any mention of party politics, the show itself is a political statement.
Firstly, this is a show which aims to bring countries together. The competition was established to bring together war-torn Europe in the 1950s – this message of ‘togetherness’ features heavily in each annual theme. That, in itself, contradicts EBU rulings because it is a political statement.
The message of ‘togetherness’ has also engulfed not only nationality, but gender, sexuality and race, which is here we see why Israel has come under criticism. Whilst some argue that Israel is the only country in the Middle East to accept homosexuality, others question how it can be an active member of the EBU when it disregards the recognition of Palestinians.
Acceptance of gender and sexuality has also been at the pinnacle of the show’s history. In 1998, Dana International became the first transgender winner, whilst in 2014, Conchita Wurst became the first drag queen to win the competition. Winning the competition usually comprises of a substantial amount of positive press coverage, a song with an inspiring message, and millions of voters – both emulated the political acceptance of the fluidity of gender and sexuality.
But this does not mean that everyone’s at the same stage of the political spectrum. This year, the semi-finals have already seen controversy for the Belarusian broadcasters. During the vote counting of first semi-final, Dana International performed a cover of Bruno Mars’ ‘Just The Way You Are’, which was accompanied by a kiss-cam that featured members of the crowd. There were a number of gay couples featured kissing in the number, to which the Belarusian presenter went on to hope that the number would “finally find some cool couples”.
Of course, to love is something that we should all have a right to across the world. Yet there are many out there who still politically declare that they are against such values.
Secondly, performances do not mention party politics, but they do make political statements. Armenia entered a song in 2015 named “Face the Shadow”. It featured the lyrics “Don’t deny/Ever don’t deny/Listen don’t deny” in reference to the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians to mark its centenary.
This was followed by Ukraine’s winning entry by Jamala in 2016. Named 1944, it was based on the deportation of the Crimean Tartars by Stalin in the 1940s. In fact, Jamala even told The Guardian that the song reminded her of present day Crimea (which was annexed by Russia in 2014). However, the EBU ruled that the song contained no “political speech”.
And last year, winner Netta described her song as “the awakening of female power and social justice”, whilst the French entry emoted the story of a Nigerian refugee as she went into labour on board a rescue ship.
It seems that entries are starting to become more and more explicit with their messaging. It isn’t known if this will mean the EBU will imply stricter rules based on how influential and how impactful Eurovision entries will get, and as populism increases in many parts of Europe, the urge for entries to send counter-protest songs seems ever more likely.
The Eurovision Song Contest is a fantastic spectacle, bringing people of all walks of life together. But, it will never be possible to ensure that the contest is apolitical. With the show’s openly pro-European stance, alongside the increasing number of discrete, subliminal protest entries, it’s hard to see a future edition of Eurovision which doesn’t feature a political controversy.