Eurovision: Glitz, Glamour and Geopolitics

Wind machines, glitter and Finnish rock music are rarely the focus of significant political attention but every year the Eurovision song contest brings geopolitics and soft power to living rooms all over Europe and beyond. The annual contest – ostensibly designed to find the catchiest/most emotional/most extravagant European anthem of the year – can be, and is, enjoyed by many purely as a fun and frankly rather bizarre singing contest. But it also acts as a major stage for European geopolitics.

Power ballads and power politics

It is on this stage that European nations (and Australia) have the opportunity to showcase the best of their musical talent and culture. And while some nations may just choose a quintessentially ‘Eurovision’ bop, designed to win over the European public, these performances can also be carefully curated political productions, designed to communicate a clear message. In 1990, as communism collapsed in Europe, Italy won the contest with ‘Insieme: 1992’ a song all about a United Europe, while in 2016 Ukraine won with ‘Jamala’ a song focused on Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars, two years after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), who host the show, have tried to reign in its politicisation – in 2009 Georgia withdrew after being pressured by the EBU to change the words to their song ‘Put In Disco’ for its thinly concealed rebuttal of President Putin, a year after the Russo-Georgian war.

These messages aren’t always so overt – singing in native languages, using cultural instruments and wearing national dress are also ways by which nations seize the opportunity to increase cultural understanding and awareness of their nation. This is particularly important for smaller or more geopolitically insecure nations such as Armenia and Moldova, who elsewhere in the year struggle to gain significant cultural or political attention. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of war, Ukraine’s entry by Kalush Orchestra last year was an emphatic tribute to the country, with performers singing in Ukrainian and wearing national dress. 

Of course, while Kalush Orchestra put on a fantastic performance, last year’s result is as much a reflection of European geopolitics as of musical prowess. Following Russia’s invasion just a few months before, Ukraine placed in the top three in the final in all but one nation’s televote and in turn the European public sent a resounding signal of solidarity to Ukraine. Ukrainians were quick to draw comparisons between their victory in Eurovision, and what they hoped would be victory on the battlefield, and with war raging in Europe, Eurovision provided a moment of unity for the continent.

Political voting has a long legacy in the competition, and in 2009 the jury vote had to be reintroduced into the competition to counter allegations – particularly vocally from the UK – of block voting, with national publics voting for their friends and neighbours. There is a degree of truth to this – Greece and Cyprus, for example, always seem to be disproportionately fond of each other’s music – but geopolitics can also be a convenient excuse. Historically Britons have been the most likely to believe that ‘it’s all politics’ and in turn results such as the UK’s infamous ‘nil points’ in 2003 are attributed to geopolitics – on this occasion apparently Europe rebuking the UK’s involvement in Iraq. In part this may be true, but it is also the case that the UK’s ‘Cry Baby’ was far from the strongest entry.

Soft Power Superpower

From ‘nil points’ in 2003 (and 2021) to 466 in 2022, last year the UK was able to buck its trend of poor results with Sam Ryder’s ‘Space Man’ coming in second to Ukraine. With Ukraine sadly unable to host given the ongoing war in the country, the UK has had the privilege of hosting the contest this year on behalf of Ukraine. Tens of thousands of people from all over world have descended on Liverpool over the last week – bringing valuable tourism and an expected £30 million to the local economy. Liverpool, which was Europe’s 2008 City of Culture and home to the Beatles, has long been an important soft power attraction for the UK, but this surge in visitors and global attention will no doubt serve to benefit Liverpool’s long term reputation.

Throughout the last week of shows, the UK has had the opportunity to showcase the best (and most bizarre) parts of British culture – from Graham Norton to Peppa Pig – and in turn to strengthen cultural understanding and appreciation of the UK. While it can be very difficult to quantify soft power, it is clear from research on major events such as the Olympics that these kinds of events have the potential to provide significant economic and cultural benefits for nations – the hosting of major sporting events, for example, has the potential to deliver £4 billion in soft power, trade and investment in the UK over the next decade.

The unique nature of this year’s Eurovision, the theme of which is ‘United by Music’, has particularly distinct soft power benefits. The UK has consistently led the way in support for Ukraine since the outbreak of the war – being the first nation to commit to providing main battle tanks to Ukraine and the second largest provider of military assistance to the country, after the United States. The UK hosting the contest on behalf of Ukraine therefore feels particularly apt and will ultimately help cement the UK’s position as a key supporter of Ukraine, particularly in the eyes of European allies. 

The contest is, of course, also a very important moment for Ukraine. While President Zelensky appears to have been blocked from making an address at Eurovision, the sea of blue and yellow outfits, flags and facepaint that have descended on Liverpool make clear that Europe continues to stand with Ukraine. With concerns over the potential for war weariness to set in across Europe, this very public celebration of Ukrainian identity and culture is an important unifying moment for the continent and for reigniting public support for Ukraine. It is also a very emphatic defiance of Putin’s attempts to squash Ukrainian culture. 

So while Eurovision is first and foremost a singing contest, it is also more than that – providing a valuable insight into European geopolitics and even the chance to shape it. The UK may be the hosting this year but the real message is clear: over a year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe stands together, united by music.

Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group