Britain, Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest

The Eurovision final takes place this Saturday in Stockholm. The UK has been a participant in the Eurovision Song Contest since 1957 and has won five times. In recent years, the UK has performed woefully and has finished last three times and once without receiving a single point at all, the infamous ‘nul points’. Historian Dean Vuletic of the University of Vienna, takes a look at the UK’s long (and sometimes tortured) history with Eurovision and the political tensions that will be played out on stage in Stockholm. Will the Brexit debate affect our scores, will Russia (the bookmakers’ favourite) be castigated in the voting for its actions in Ukraine, and could Ukraine’s controversial entry steal the show?

As Europe awaits the results of the United Kingdom’s referendum on membership in the European Union, it is this week also anticipating the results of another vote: the Eurovision Song Contest, one of the most-watched television shows in Europe. As national audiences from almost all European states participate in the contest’s voting to select the best song, the Eurovision Song Contest is often viewed as a barometer for European public opinion. The voting results of this year’s contest are also likely to be interpreted in light of the United Kingdom’s referendum on membership in the European Union. A poor score for the United Kingdom’s entry might be perceived as a European reprimand for the referendum or at least a disinterest in the United Kingdom’s affairs, while a good score might be construed as a message that Europeans would like the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union.

It is easy to interpret a political message from this year’s United Kingdom’s entry if one wants to: sung by the duo Joe and Jake, “You’re Not Alone” emphasises togetherness. Whether such messages are deliberate or not, it is part of European folklore to interpret Eurovision Song Contest entries against the political background of the time, especially as the contest is constructed as a competition between states. Criticisms of the Eurovision Song Contest have abounded in the British media in recent years as British entries have generally performed poorly, and they have also reflected Eurosceptic sentiments in British politics. The British media is renowned for making fun of the Eurovision Song Contest and for mocking other nations through their analyses of it. Or for presenting the Eurovision Song Contest as a symbol of what is wrong with European integration or of the decline in the United Kingdom’s international influence. The United Kingdom has historically been the world’s second-largest popular music exporter, but the global popular music industry has changed significantly since the Anglo-American dominated Cold War era. Sweden, the host of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, is the world’s third-largest popular music exporter and its government enthusiastically appropriates popular music in Sweden’s soft power. And Swedes generally speak English very well. Singing in English at the Eurovision Song Contest is no longer an advantage for the United Kingdom or Ireland as it was in the 1990s, when entries still had to be sung in an official language of the state that they represented.

Going back to the British referendum on membership in the European Community in 1975, the United Kingdom was around that time a major force in the Eurovision Song Contest. From 1967 to 1977, it had three wins and none of its other entries achieved less than fourth place. The French, Irish and Swedes sometimes got in the way of a British victory, but big stars like Olivia Newton-John, Cliff Richard and The Shadows demonstrated that this was a European event that was important for projecting the United Kingdom’s soft power. The BBC no longer brings the United Kingdom’s biggest stars onto the Eurovision stage. However, it appears that many in the United Kingdom still take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously, especially for the opportunities that it provides for cultural diplomacy. Few European heads of government have had to respond to concerns over their state’s position in the Eurovision Song Contest as David Cameron did when he recently had to answer a parliamentary question on whether the United Kingdom would still be allowed to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest if it were to leave the European Union. Of course it would be. The Eurovision Song Contest is organised by the European Broadcasting Union, an association of national public service radio and television broadcasters. It was formed in 1950, with the BBC playing a leading role in its formation. Since its establishment in 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest has always reflected changes in European integration, but it has never been controlled by any other European organisation and it has always included more states than the European Community or the European Union.

As the United Kingdom’s entry in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest has not been highly ranked by commentators, there has not been much talk about the potential that a British victory in the Eurovision Song Contest could have on the upcoming referendum. We will have to wait for the results of the final on Saturday to see how they will be interpreted by journalists and politicians. However, there is another political issue that is being played out in this year’s contest: the tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Betting agencies in the United Kingdom have for months predicted a win for Russia, which is sending one of its biggest pop stars, Sergey Lazarev, and has invested heavily into the promotion and staging of his song. Russian politicians view the Eurovision Song Contest as an important tool of Russia’s soft power. Some of them were vocal in criticising the win in 2014 of Austria’s bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst, whom they viewed as a symbol of the West’s “decadent” values. The United Kingdom awarded Conchita Wurst the maximum of twelve points in 2014, signifying clearly which values it stood for. This year’s Ukrainian entry, the song “1944” sung by Jamala, is ostensibly about the deportation of Tartars from Crimea in the 1940s, but it can also be read as a protest against Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea. “1944” has in the last week shot ahead in the betting odds to second place, directly challenging an expected Russian victory. This year’s Eurovision Song Contest might be more about the war in Ukraine than the referendum in the United Kingdom, but for that very reason it will highlight how the United Kingdom’s role in the European Union is also defined by events elsewhere in the world.

Dr Dean Vuletic is a historian of contemporary Europe who specialises in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest. As a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, he led the project ‘Eurovision: A History of Europe through Popular Music’ at the University of Vienna.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Featured image credit: Juanky Pamies Alcubilla/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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