Away from the political and economic battlefield of the Euro crisis, there is another crisis evolving with regard to one of Europe’s institution, namely the Eurovision Song Contest. Although easily dismissed by sceptics as a meaningless and wasteful celebration of kitsch, the Contest counts millions of fans in its 59-year-long history. As an annual media ritual, it symbolically brings together European cultures and is an arena both for the performance of European and national identities and for the negotiation over the meanings and frontiers of Europe.
With this year’s Eurovision Final being less than three months away, the 37 participant countries have started procedures for deciding their representative acts. Despite the enthusiastic preparations of the hosts in Copenhagen, as well as the devoted fans’ excitement, there are clouds hanging over the 59th Competition, reflecting the broader climate of austerity and hardship amidst the Euro crisis.
The 2014 Eurovision contest will be marked by a large number of absences, some of countries with a strong, even winning, history in the competition, most of them due to financial difficulties faced by the national broadcasters. Bulgaria was the first to announce their intention not to participate in the 2014 contest, with Cyprus, Serbia, Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia (who claimed organisational difficulties) following foot last autumn. Slovenia only came to the decision to participate in the last moment. Greece, which also seemed to have organisational difficulties due to the sudden shutdown of its state broadcaster last summer, now hopes for a smooth continuation of the competition through its new public broadcaster NERIT. At the same time, Turkey, another past winner, has not been attending the competition since last year in protest to the “big five” rule of the competition, which secures a position to the final to the five main financial contributors of the competition, namely the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
It is not the first year that the contest experiences the consequences of the Euro crisis. Bosnia-Herzegovian, Portugal and Poland were absent last year due to economic hardships – Portugal and Poland are returning this year, the latter after a two-year hiatus. After failing to win any points from 34 of the 39 countries of the Contest in 2013, Germany put the blame on the unpopular policies of Angela Merkel regarding the Euro crisis. While illustrating the evident interconnections of the competition with the economic and political aspects of Europe, these developments also pose serious challenges for the competition.
First of all, the place and role of the contest within an austerity-stricken Europe is being questioned. As the financial crisis deepens, the idea of Europe is increasingly being stripped of its symbolic and performative aspects and has become virtually exclusive the domain of – mostly bad – economic decisions and political inefficiency. In this gloomy context of disappointment and discontent with the European idea(l), can Eurovision actually “save” Europe, as an annual popular ritual that unites Europeans in front of their media screens? Or will the competition take the back seat and be increasingly seen as irrelevant or even “morally wrong” and wasteful in recession-hit countries? The latter view seems to take precedence in the justifications of the countries that have decided not to participate this year, claiming considerations of public sentiment and public opinion. As long as there are millions of devoted fans across Europe, though, and the Eurovision Song Contest remains the main showcase of EBU’s activities, not to mention the promotional opportunities it offers to smaller countries, it seems unlikely that the contest faces any serious threats, at least in the near future.
Another more immediate question the recent developments pose with regard to the competition concern the geopolitics of its votes. Voting patterns have long given rise to criticisms of the Eurovision as being more about politics than music. This kind of politics tends to reflect the popular politics of cultural affinity rather than the political interests of the elites – although distinguishing between the two is not always easy or fruitful. This year’s absences question the fate of their long-held affiliations within the competition, and leaves space for new constellations. At the same time, it will be interesting to see whether the experience of the Euro crisis will be expressed in new affiliations among participants reflecting the distinctions drawn in public discourse regarding blame and responsibility for the crisis. Will the PIIGS gain each other’s public support? Will Southern Europe react against Northern European countries? Has the Euro crisis contributed to the emergence of new cultural affinities within Europe and will these be expressed in Eurovision voting?
The close interaction between politics and Eurovision is not, of course, anything new. It is the first time, however, that these interlinked factors threaten the competition and may undermine its legitimacy in public opinion. As Eurovision approaches sixty, it seems to be facing its biggest challenge yet. On the other hand, the return of Portugal and Poland to the competition, the enthusiastic preparations in Copenhagen and the fast selling out of the tickets for the finals are all optimistic signs. Optimism, after all, has always been one of the messages of the contest.
An earlier version of this post first appeared on the website of The Eurovision Research Project. The project aims at studying the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest as a media event and is particularly interested in the media practices of fans and media professionals at the event.
Dr Maria Kyriakidou is a lecturer of Cultural Politics, Communications and Media at the University of East Anglia. She is an Associate to the Southern Europe International Affairs Programme of LSE IDEAS and a co-founder and editor of Euro Crisis in the Press. Follow her on Twitter
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics.