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Eurovision: As apolitical as it is beige

This year's Eurovision takes place in Rotterdam. Pandemic restrictions have meant toning down extravagance, but will it also manage to tone down political debate and controversy?
Howl of despair. Michael Rice went out with more of a whimper than a bang in 2019... coming last. Image: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

“The European Song Contest,” states clause 2.7 of the competition’s 3,500-word rules sheet, “is a non-political event”. That laughter you can hear right now coming from Eurovision fans around the world is the type of disbelieving hilarity typically reserved for whichever unfortunate lamb-to-the-voting-slaughter the chronically unpopular UK has sent as a contestant merely for appearance’s sake. For all the competition’s good intentions in ensuring that it “shall in no case be politicised” – more laughter – Eurovision is in truth about as apolitical as it is beige, conservative and staunchly heterosexual. 

In an extravagant, emotionally charged contest of nations featuring many entrants who are either directly or indirectly state-sponsored, certain agendas can’t help but creep to the fore. Whether through plainly geopolitically informed bloc voting, or unsubtle digs at one another between quarrelling neighbours, Eurovision is so much more than a mere contest of songwriting and performance. 

Its ungovernable politicism is one of the things that makes the annual live TV event – too readily written off by many as vacuous, artistically negligible fluff – such absurdly entertaining and fascinating and dare-I-say essential viewing; a once-a-year window into the chaotic mind and soul of a continent as it celebrates its cultural peculiarities and commonalities, while also expressing its differences not by lobbing mortar shells at one another over disputed borders, but by cranking out some seriously catchy OTT sad bangers and elaborate dance routines. Which, whatever your feelings about OTT sad bangers and elaborate dance routines, must count as some kind of progress for humanity, no?

Outside of sport, Eurovision may in fact be the last public example of pan-European co-operation in which Britain still partakes

Launched in 1956 as a way of trying to help reunite a continent that had just been riven by the biggest and bloodiest internecine conflict in history, Eurovision was a soft-power political instrument at its very inception – a kind of United Nations for chanson singers in tasteful frocks. Whether Eurovision’s founders one day envisioned the contest going on to welcome all from transgender divas to pantomime metal bands, bearded drag queens, Australians and Engelbert Humperdinck, who can say, but as times have changed so too has the competition adapted and grown, becoming a liberal progressive force in the process. How many other major live TV events once a year beam what is among many other things a massive celebration of LGBT+ culture into the homes of nearly 200 million people worldwide, including nations such as Russia, Ukraine and Armenia, where queer people continue to face state-sanctioned discrimination and persecution? Exactly none.

The Eurovision powers-that-be do attempt, albeit selectively, to enforce their rule about the competition remaining “non-political”. But certain heated issues can’t help but spill into proceedings. The ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has repeatedly become entangled with Eurovision, whether through flag-waving incidents or censorship of one another’s performances by state broadcasters. In 2016, Ukraine’s Jamala won Eurovision with the song 1944, a sad banger about Soviet deportation of the Crimean Tatars during World War 2 – a thinly veiled criticism of Russia over its recent bloody incursions on to Ukrainian soil (the following year Russia opted not to take part as Ukraine hosted). The very fact of Israel being permitted to compete in Eurovision at all, much less host the competition on three occasions since 1979, is intolerable to many considering that nation’s record of human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The influence of bloc-voting, once so rampant that it made the late Terry Wogan quit as the BBC’s Eurovision commentator in 2008, has been diminished in recent years by the addition of semi-finals and jury panels, yet it remains one of the most peculiar and baffling aspects of the competition. The Scandinavian nations still generally cheerfully club together in a disgustingly well-adjusted way; voting patterns among Eastern European nations, for so long deferential to big brother Russia, have meanwhile fractured. Confusingly, in spite of stuff like, y’know, 800 years of British oppression, Ireland for some reason has traditionally spared a (pitying?) handful of votes for nearest neighbours the UK. The UK’s dismal Eurovision record in the 21st century, including four last-placed finishes, nevertheless looks unlikely to improve given animosities around Brexit. Outside of sport, Eurovision may in fact be the last public example of pan-European co-operation in which Britain still partakes.

With a smaller live audience in attendance at this year’s finals in Rotterdam, the first in two years following last year’s Covid-related cancellation, does Eurovision 2021 promise to be less contentious an affair? Unlikely. Belarus are already barred for twice attempting to submit songs by the band Galasy ZMesta, featuring lyrics mocking anti-government protests in a country dubbed “Europe’s last dictatorship”. A strong contender to win is Tusse, a Swedish-Congolese 19-year-old who arrived in Sweden as a child refugee, and whose stirring anthem for the dispossessed voices can’t help but be interpreted as referencing the refugee crisis – about as controversial an issue as they come in European politics right now. Never let it be said that Eurovision is all just a bit of fun. 

Eurovision 2021 takes place May 18, 20 and 22 with live coverage on BBC One; eurovision.tv 

Read our guide to everything you need to know about Eurovision 2021 here, and look back on the weirdest moments in Eurovision history here.