The Eurovision song contest has long had political undertones. Paul Jordan examines the perception of its increasing politicisation and finds that the British have a cynical attitude, dismissing the contest as ridiculous whilst perpetuating the myth that Europe simply doesn’t like the UK. He argues that there is an association between Euroscepticism, arguably at an all-time high, and the general malaise towards Eurovision.
The Eurovision song contest has been broadcast every year for nearly 60 years. It is the longest running television programme in the world. Loved and hated in equal measure, the contest is an event that people across the continent have an opinion on. The 2013 edition was no different. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), who oversees the organisation of the contest, continually stresses the apolitical nature of the event despite the fact that the programme regularly engenders fierce political debates. Sweden’s national broadcaster, SVT, came up with the slogan “We Are One” for the 2013 contest. The theme aimed to portray Europe as a united entity, emphasising diversity and multiculturalism. Except, we really aren’t one; Europe is a fractured construct, economically, politically and socially. After the 2012 edition held in Baku, Azerbaijan, the most politically charged contest ever, the Swedes were keen to promote human rights, something that the EBU shied away from last year.
Eurovision has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. The contest has nearly doubled in size, with 43 countries taking to the stage in 2008. Eligibility to participate is not determined by geographic inclusion within the continent of Europe, despite the inference in the title of the competition. Rather it is dependent upon the national broadcaster being a full and active member of the EBU. Several countries which are geographically out with the boundaries of Europe have competed; namely Israel and Azerbaijan since 1973 and 2008 respectively. Morocco took part in 1980. In addition, Turkey and Russia, which are both transcontinental countries with most of their territory outside of Europe, have competed respectively since 1975 and 1994. Thus Europe as a socio-political construct is not only mirrored but effectively reinforced.
The re-integration of Eastern European countries into the mainstream of Europe and to Eurovision since 1993 has led to increased energies, tensions and controversies. It was also in this period that countries such as the UK and Ireland, traditionally success stories in the contest, began to see their final positions on the scoreboard diminish. Accusations that the contest was “political”, “an Eastern European stitch-up” and “a farce” abounded. Terry Wogan quit in his role as BBC commentator after the UK finished last in 2008 whilst Russia went on to win. The failure of the Netherlands to reach the final in 2005 was held up in the Dutch media as an example of how power within the EU has shifted eastwards. Every winner from 2001-2008 was from a new-entrant country outside the contest’s traditional Western European heartland, or from long-time participant countries which had not yet scored a victory. Greece and Finland, both of which are located on the physical edges of Western Europe, won for the first time in this period. The debates surrounding the ESC and the increasing “politicisation” of the contest serves as an example of the “othering” of Eastern Europe. In this context comments about so-called Eastern-bloc voting at the ESC can be seen as a reflection of the general rhetoric concerning European Union enlargement and the accompanying debates on immigration. Thus the participation of post-communist countries in Eurovision was, like immigration has been, portrayed as wrongful domination by the wild east.
The 2007 Eurovision Song Contest semi-final, where all ten qualifiers came from east of the Danube, inflamed the passions of critics and arguably paved the way for further changes to the organisation of the contest. In a bid to dispel the controversies of the previous year, the EBU separated countries on the basis of location and by those which had previously tended to vote for each other into various different “pots”. Countries which took part in one semi-final were not eligible for vote for those in another, effectively splitting the vote. Despite the changes to the voting system, the inherent perception of corruption persisted mainly amongst western competitors. In 2009 the EBU re-introduced the use of the jury vote, combining it in an equal division with the public telephone vote for the final and this was expanded further to include both semi-finals in 2010. Such a move can be seen as evidence of the EBU desire to continue to expand the competition whilst at the same time providing reassurance to long-standing (western) participants that their concerns were being addressed whilst at the same time ensuring that the funding for the competition continues to be secured. The UK, along with France, Spain, Germany and Italy make up what is known as the “Big Five”. These five countries have the largest audience share of the contest and contribute the most amount of money to the financing of the event. It seems that when it comes to Eurovision, money talks.
The UK has undoubtedly fared poorly over the past decade or so. It is interesting to observe some of these debates, which often reflect wider debates concerning Britain’s place in Europe, namely the EU. The British have a cynical attitude, dismissing the contest as ridiculous whilst perpetuating the myth that Europe simply doesn’t like the UK. Could it be the case that there are other issues at play here? The relaxation of the language rules in 1999 immediately saw a decline in the fortunes of the UK, Ireland and Malta, all of whom performed in English at Eurovision whilst every other competing nation had to perform in their native language. The contest has significantly expanded and the inclusion of the public telephone vote has also saw voting blocs appear. However, voting blocs have always been a part of Eurovision. I think it’s far too easy to blame politics on the UK’s lack of success in recent times. The UK and Ireland vote for each other too so perhaps the British shouldn’t be decrying the actions of others so quickly. I would argue that essentially the UK hasn’t been good enough and when the BBC has made an effort, they have been rewarded. In 2009 the UK’s Jade Ewen, performing Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Dianne Warren’s “My Time” came 5th. In 2011 Blue came 5th in the public vote and due to a poor showing with the juries, 11th overall.
Karen Fricker, in her recent book “Eurovision and the New Europe“, argued that British Euroscepticism is both reflected and reinforced by Eurovision. Critics of the contest state that the UK has no chance in the event anymore due to “the political voting in Eastern Europe”. Such attitude fail to acknowledge that bloc voting has always been part of the event and is just as widespread in the west as it is the east. With Euroscepticism arguably at an all-time high, there appears to be general malaise towards Eurovision. Germany proved in 2010 that a western, Big Five country can win Eurovision. It seems that when it comes to the UK entry there is a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. For the BBC it is cheap television, costing a fraction of what it costs to produce Strictly Come Dancing. Arguably in this age of austerity not many countries would welcome the financial and logistical headache of hosting the contest following victory. It’s worth noting though, that despite the recent troubles, the UK still has the strongest record of any country in Eurovision; 5 wins, a record 15 second places. In total the UK has finished in the top 5 on no less than 29 occasions. It seems that we do perform well in Eurovision, yet somehow, it seems easier to believe that bad news, that nobody likes us anymore. Such discourses, I think, are lazy and ill-thought out and play straight into the hands of Eurosceptics.
This article was first published on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Dr Paul Jordan is an expert on the Eurovision Song Contest and in 2011 successfully defended his PhD, The Eurovision Song Contest: Nation Building and Nation Branding in Estonia and Ukraine, at the University of Glasgow.