A (Euro)Vision of Contemporary European Politics
WORDS BY JEFFREY KHOO
Yes, it’s that time of year again, where Europe, and a few other select countries, come together in that inimitable congruence of God-awful power ballads, ‘traditional’ outfits of questionable taste and, well, whatever this is1: Eurovision. Kyiv 2017, stretching from 9 to 13 May, marks the 62nd edition of the annual Festival of Cheese. It’s grown from very humble, tame beginnings to something of a cultural juggernaut: last year, over 204 million people watched the live shows, and apparently, everyone in Iceland was glued to their TV sets for the Grand Final.2
These ridiculous viewing figures don’t come cheap: the Economist estimates the total cost of Kyiv 2017 at $32m3, which is practically all of the Ukrainian public broadcaster’s budget for 2017. That covers the cost of hosting and broadcasting on three nights, as well as providing spaces for the artists, spaces for journalists, hotel rooms for everyone (including the 10,000 fans expected to pack the International Exhibition Centre), Eurovision-sanctioned afterparties, and general sprucing-up of the place. Given Ukraine’s delicate political situation, the costs associated with holding an event of this magnitude will likely encompass more than financial deficits.
If that’s so, why would any country want to win, and in doing so, shoulder the responsibilities of hosting the next year’s competition? (Before any smartass thinks that Eurovision is meant to highlight local artists: again, I redirect you to this1, which I still haven’t figured out what the fuck it’s meant to be. Musical integrity died a long time ago, honey.) In theory, Eurovision is one big campy advertisement for the host city. It’s an expression of might and power cloaked in a copious quantity of glitter. When the travelling circus comes to town, the skeletons are placed firmly in the closet, and everybody comes out to party, thus kickstarting the economy and cementing the host nation’s place in popular culture and regional politics.
It doesn’t always work out like that. Take Baku 2012, in the great nation of Azerbaijan. The Azeri broadcaster, government and tourism industry went a little bit nuts, spending no less than $78m (which helped fund this admittedly impressive stage4). But all the glitz and glamour wasn’t enough to hide Azerbaijan’s track record of systemic human rights abuses. Indeed, it only strengthened the resolve of local activists to turn media attention into meaningful pressure on the Azeri government.
Unfortunately, Azerbaijan still enforces human rights to a very minimal degree; if anything, the Azeri government has become more brutal in its repression of free speech since 2012.5 And Baku is still not number 1 on anybody’s dream places to visit.
Still, emerging countries view hosting of the contest as, if not a magic bullet, at least a gateway to prosperity and a way to find their feet. The list of Eurovision champions after 2000 inclusive contains countries like Estonia (winner in 2001, with ‘Everybody’), Latvia (2002, ‘I Wanna’), Turkey (2003, ‘Everyway that I Can’), Serbia (2007), and Azerbaijan (2011). Russia has only won once in that period, as has Germany.
At first glance, it seems extremely odd that a country like Latvia could outperform, say, all 66.8 million people in France, and even more peculiar when you consider that the Big Five – the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy – automatically qualify for the Grand Final, and presumably have a better shot at the trophy. But the picture becomes clearer when you realise that the Big Five have been given that flattering sobriquet not because of their historical or political power, but because they provide the largest financial contributions to the European Broadcasting Union. They don’t want the significantly heavy burden of hosting as well. And, in the case of the UK, they’ve had to step in and host on four occasions, when smaller countries simply couldn’t. So, when the Brits send a dogshit song to Eurovision, it’s probably on purpose. Still, in many ways, Eurovision’s expansion, and the changing composition of its winners, reflects a corresponding power shift in contemporary European politics, away from traditional strongholds to incipient regional players. (It also partly explains what the fuck Australia and Israel are doing here.)
Of course, you can’t talk Europolitics without mentioning the voting blocs in Scandinavia, the Balkans and the former USSR. Countries in these blocs tend to share curiously high point values over the years; for example, this academic paper details how, for example, Scandinavian countries significantly boosted Sweden’s win in 1999. Voting blocs occur for a number of reasons: countries in the same region might be exposed to the same artists who might happen to perform; expats can vote for their home country; or, simply, countries feel a sense of neighbourly goodwill (possibly the case with Spain and Andorra).
Sometimes, voting patterns can illuminate both loyalties and strained relationships. Ever since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Cypriots gave the Turks the cold shoulder, and Cyprus’ sole douze points benefactor, Greece, followed suit. (The three countries only began exchanging points again in 2003, when Turkey won the contest.) Alternatively, take when, as it became clear that Israel was going to win the 1978 contest, Jordan’s public television station just cut the broadcast, showed pictures of flowers (?!) and announced that Belgium, the runner-up, won.
But the incident that demonstrates the most incredible (and frankly aspirational) level of petty is the Nagorno-Karabakh Strategic Object Placement War of 2009 between Armenia and Azerbaijan.7 The introductory video for the Armenian act displayed We Are Our Mountains, a monument in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh (the two countries fought a bloody war over the territory, which is controlled by Armenian-backed forces but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan). Azerbaijan, as expected, kicked up a stink. What took this from mildly amusing to totally extra is that during the telecast announcement of their votes, Armenia’s spokeswoman literally taped a photo of We Are Our Mountains on her clipboardwhich she flashed to the camera periodically; Armenia also projected a huge picture of the monument on a screen in the middle of the Armenian capital. What took this from totally extra to suddenly scary is that after the contest, Azeri authorities rounded up the 43 people who voted for Armenia, and subjected them to serious interrogation.8 (Unsurprisingly, Armenia didn’t bother to come to Baku 2012.)
It wasn’t always like this. Eurovision actually came about as a post-WWII effort that sought to reunite the continent by celebrating Europe’s rich musical history and shared heritage, through the brand-new medium of television. One marvels at how the brains behind the first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956 came up with such an innovation. And one can’t help but notice the coincidences between the development of the Contest and of the European Union as a political entity. Both came about after the war, with the mission of repatching torn relations and preventing pan-European conflict for good. As the years went by, with the contours of the Contest and the Union intersecting at various points, both expanded into Eastern Europe and then into its current formulation, with criticism being levelled at both institutions for being too big, too unwieldy, too costly for their own good.
Europe, undoubtedly, is changing, and you only need to look at the recent success of populist movements, most denouncing immigration, espousing protectionism and attacking the EU, to see how. So, if the geopolitical tide is turning against further integration and towards increasingly isolationist foreign policy, what role does Eurovision have to play in this changing Europe?
Some would argue that Eurovision exacerbates entrenched divisions. By providing a common forum where every country from San Marino to Germany can be heard, acts may want to use that forum, and the publicity that comes with it, as a dumping ground for their gripes or concerns. Historical examples include Ukraine’s controversial winning entry in 20169, with lyrics detailing the massacre of an ethnic minority by Russian forces; Russia’s subsequent withdrawal from the 2017 Contest, after their act was refused entry; Russia’s crackdown on LGBT rights, antagonising the rest of Europe and forcing the organisers of Vienna 2015 to install anti-booing technology in the arena10; and the anti-US sentiments in Luxembourg’s 1981 entry ‘C'est peut-être pas l'Amérique’11 (Maybe It’s Not America). If one is swayed by this argument, one will be particularly interested in how the UK will be received in Kyiv 2017, just before Brexit negotiations begin (and, one presumes, just before rhetoric heats up).
Some would argue that Eurovision truly brings people together to celebrate harmony and diversity, even just for a brief period. And, at least in intent, that is what the Contest organisers hope for (although, admittedly, it is inexpedient to hope otherwise). The Contest’s mottos of recent years have included ‘Building Bridges’, ‘Come Together’, and the very trendy ‘#JoinUs’.
Evidently, pro-Eurovision perspectives prefer to focus on the original purpose of Eurovision – to bring people together and celebrate diversity – and point to its strong following in the LGBTQ community, and to its 2014 winner, bearded Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst, as examples of such lofty ideals actually materialising. It’s important to note, however, that diversity doesn’t just encompass demographics but also languages, and on that front Eurovision isn’t doing so well: since the 1999 Contest, which lifted the requirement that acts had to sing in their country’s native language, only one winner had absolutely no English, while two winners sang mainly in English but incorporated phrases from their native language. While the jury’s still out on whether the English preference is a troubling form of discrimination inherent in the structure of the Contest (or in European society more broadly), it nevertheless points to the increasing reach of Anglo-American popular culture and the continued reign of English as the lingua franca of today.
Further still, some would argue that Eurovision neither reinforces European identity, nor does it indirectly fuel movements hostile to pan-Europeanism. It just is what it is. If there is any political significance assigned to Eurovision, it doesn’t necessarily arise from the Contest itself. ‘Molitva’12 (‘Prayer’), the song that won the 2007 Contest for Serbia (and a legitimately great song at that), is often played at Serbian patriotic events or on the national broadcaster between programs. And the 1974 Portuguese entry was used by military generals as a code to begin the Carnation Revolution13, resulting in a military coup of the Portuguese dictator Marcello Caetano.
Normally, writers conclude articles like this one with a reasoned opinion about What This Says About The State Of Europe (And Possibly, The World); whether Eurovision strengthens continental pride, or whether it exposes the strains and cracks in relationships for all to see. But I think that if I had to give an opinion, I couldn’t argue either way. But what I do know is that I’ll be waking up stupidly early three nights this week, tuned to the Contest that stops a continent. Who knows? Maybe this Contest will produce a moment that so vividly and poetically captures the state of contemporary European politics. Or maybe it’ll just be the clusterfuck of sequins, wind machines and barely-tolerable noise that we’ve grown to know and love. Whatever it is, I’ll be watching. I hope you’ll join me.