Politics has always been at the heart of Eurovision

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Eurovision 2015, Vienna. [Eurovision 2015]

Eurovision is about spreading Europe’s values of tolerance and cooperation beyond its borders, write Quincy R. Cloet and Kerry Longhurst.  

Kerry Longhurst is a Jean Monnet Professor at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, Poland and also Professor at the Natolin Campus of the College of Europe. Quincy R. Cloet is a Research Assistant at the College of Europe Natolin Campus, Warsaw.

The Eurovision Song Contest has hit 60. Since its inauguration the competition has grown in both size and significance. Eurovision 2015 was a lavish affair, with 27 competing finalists and around 200 million viewers, many of them outside of Europe. Whilst the Eurovision diamond shone brightly in Vienna, conflict with Russia in Europe’s Eastern periphery rumbles on, meanwhile there is no end in sight for the ongoing talks over Greece’s government-debt crisis.

The continent-wide music event represents for some the seed of a growing European sphere, but for others it is an irritating and costly platform for eccentrics and a circus for bearded ladies. Like it or not, Eurovision has become a fixture in the European calendar, it is a showcase for venting anger at certain states, but is also about spreading Europe’s values of tolerance and cooperation beyond its borders, all in the name of light entertainment on a Saturday night once a year in May.

Though this year’s Austrian hosts tried to eradicate politics from the Stadthalle, Eurovision 2015 was the most politically charged contest so far. It is nonsense to suggest that politics can be avoided and that Eurovision should just be about the music. We should remind ourselves that in the course of its 60-year history the contest has always been about promoting integration and cooperation; from its initial seven country membership the number of participating states wanting a piece of the action has grown rapidly.

Joining Eurovision was part of Central Europe’s post-1989 ‘return to Europe’, it affirmed countries like Poland’s newly found sovereignty and place in Europe. The same can be said for the former states of Yugoslavia and the South Caucasus where taking part in the contest was very much connected to national pride being exercised within a ‘civilised’ European context, thereby helping to put the past to bed.

The strongest example, though, is that of Ukraine. Ruslana’s victory in 2004 with ‘Wild Dances’ fed the fever of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and affirmed the country’s European credentials.

The Ruslana phenomenon lived on, she was feted a national hero and awarded many national accolades, she also became a key Maidan activist and was one of the faces of Ukraine’s pro-European movement. It is no exaggeration to say that Ruslana’s pro-democracy role and her prominence can be attributed in no small part to her Eurovision success.

Eurovision shows that light entertainment has a serious side. Voting patterns have become notoriously political with neighbours supporting each other and diasporas vouching for their homelands. Incestuous voting patterns have been traditionally strong in the Western Balkans, Scandinavia and between Cyprus and Greece.

What’s more, countries have attempted to enter songs with lyrics or titles with direct political messages, which goes against Eurovision rules. In 2009 shortly after the Georgia-Russia war, Georgia’s proposed entry was overtly anti-Putin and this year the Armenians fielded a number unambiguously about the genocide. Was Greece’s ‘One Last Breath’ a reference to the country’s financial woes?

Eurovision’s role in politics went global this year. Adopting the theme of ‘building bridges’ to promote tolerance, transcend conflict and by implication spread Europe’s message stretched to the other side of the world.

Australia’s participation shows that the contest is popular beyond Europe’s shores, but more importantly that the idea of Europe and of being European is not simply tied to geography. By taking the stage Guy Sebastian was showing that Australians also subscribe to the tenets of European civilisation.

But there is more to this. Europe’s relations with Australia have become palpably closer in recent times, EU states have much in common with Australia on key global issues with rising consultation and cooperation on trade, migration, defence and terrorism. Does this new precedent show that Eurovision can pave the way for more ‘Global Europe’, linking like-minded states and regions to the European mothership by song?

The Eurovision song contest is unique and should be cherished. As one of the longest running TV shows it successfully brings together an ever-growing number of competing states. It gives a platform and voice (literally) to countries on an equal footing and helps celebrate difference. Conchita Wurst and all that she stands for make her a European cultural and political icon, a splendid creation of Eurovision.

By blending light entertainment with the promotion of tolerance, served with a huge side-order of kitsch, Eurovision is at Europe’s avant-garde. It might appear frothy and frivolous, but the Eurovision song contest is at heart a highly political creature.

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