By Amaani S and Emma W
In an inherently divided world of politics in the current climate, there is a level of unity that could be expected from the upcoming international song competition, Eurovision, with over 180 million viewers worldwide. Nonetheless, the show has in recent years strayed further from international relations and harmony between the continent of Europe, but closer to political games, masked by the performances of groups and artists. The contest claims that one of its main values is to be non-political, as a way of uniting Europe regardless of the political and social tensions. This means that participating broadcasters and performers are banned from promoting or referring to anything of a political, commercial or similar nature during the contest. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) acts as the arbitrator deciding between what is labelled political and non-political, despite there being no official definition to determine this, leaving them to decide what qualifies based entirely upon their own personal bias. This has arguably led to certain examples of political activism slipping under the radar.
In 2017, Ukraine won the Eurovision song contest with their song ‘1944’ performed by Jamala, a song about the fate of Crimean Tatars during the Second World War, which deals with sensitive themes such as Stalin, Crimea and claims of ethnic cleansing. The EBU had to make an official statement in which they deemed the song to be non-political, as it did not explicitly reference any current political tensions. Controversially, however, Armenia was asked to remove lyrics in their song about the Armenian genocide (1915-17) in the 2016 competition despite it also not referencing any current political tensions. Nevertheless, this victory landed Ukraine the right to host the next contest in Kyiv, the capital. Eerily foreshadowing the current relationship (or lack thereof) between Ukraine and its neighbour Russia, in 2018 Ukraine blocked the visa of the provisional artist representing Russia, Julia Samoylava, on the grounds that she had visited Crimea, an area occupied by Russian forces. This further amplified Russia’s decision to leave the contest overall the following year. Additionally, Ukraine’s contestant in the 2019 contest pulled out because their performer Maruv was dropped by the local broadcaster after refusing to sign a contract temporarily barring her from playing in Russia.
The disparity between what the EBU classes as political or not is made even more obvious when you consider the visibility of LGBTQ+ people at the event. Eurovision has had many queer performers and last year they even had a trans host, Nikkie de Jager (known online as Nikkie Tutorials). Even though this seems uncontroversial from our western viewpoint, in many areas of Europe LGBTQ+ rights are considered an inherently political topic. For example, right now in Russia same-sex couples are not recognised by the state and they have a law that bans any material that promotes “non-traditional sexual relationships”. They are not the only country with negative views of the LGBTQ+ community with other countries such as Poland and Hungary planning to implement similar laws in the coming years. As a result of this, all of these countries as well as China and Turkey decided to not broadcast the 2013 edition of Eurovision as Finland’s act that year featured a same-sex kiss. In fact, in 2018 the EBU made the decision to ban Chinese broadcasting company, MangoTV, from airing Eurovision due to them repeatedly censoring LGBTQ+ aspects of the competition such as flags and tattoos. This banning emphasises the viewpoint that the EBU allows Eurovision to be political when it suits their personal biases. In this instance it allows them to continue to market themselves as an LGBTQ+ friendly event and avoid the wrath of the EU commission who have started legal action against Hungary and Poland for “violations of fundamental rights of LGBTQ+ people”.
As well as this, the way in which the acts are voted for, while democratic, is also intrinsically political. Over the years there have been many scandals related to voting that, despite their obvious violation of the no-politics rule, have gone unpunished by the EBU. An example of this is Cyprus and Greece’s tendency to award each other the highest marks; or when Azerbaijan’s National Security Ministry demanded explanations from the 43 people in their country that voted for Armenia in 2009. This arguably makes the show less about the musical quality of the songs and more about providing a way for countries to publicly support or oppose other nations.
In consideration of this, is it truly fair to say that Eurovision is not political? Arguably, it is impossible to have so many nations, built upon different variations and interpretations of democracy and liberty, all take part in a ‘non-political’ competition, broadcast to the millions upon millions of people that make up these societies, relying on the average person to become a neutral and depoliticised voter for a song contest. Surely this cannot be functional? However, voters are not pre-eminently the reason for the Eurovision song contest becoming political: it is the representatives of the nation-states, or Eurovision itself. As preformentioned, the EBU has a large influence in deciding the motivations behind certain acts and performances in the contest. Is it fair that this supposedly neutral body has blatantly shown its political bias while claiming not to have one?