The strong passions sparked by this year’s Eurovision song contest, won by Ukraine, symbolise the wider political tensions between European members. These issues also highlight a growing European tendency of politicising the public sphere, increasing the risk of exposure to hybrid warfare.
In 2016, the annual ode to kitsch European dance rhythms became a focal point of continental geopolitical tensions. The Eurovision song contest, a show whose songs almost always revolve around the ‘Love Love, Peace Peace’ theme, managed to become a magnet for critics. While much may be written about the quality of individual performances, the issues that emerged in this year’s Eurovision were a window into the European Union’s long-lasting and unresolved problems.
Indeed, more than 20 years after the Maastricht Treaty, the EU now faces serious issues. Citizens of member states, for instance, criticise the apparent lack of transparency in the decision making process, while the rift between institutions and national electorates fuels Eurosceptic ideologies. In addition, one of the EU’s main ideals of creating a supranational sense of European identity is increasingly challenged by separatist and nationalist tendencies. Beyond the flashy lights and tightly-choreographed dance scenes, these tensions were laid bare during the Eurovision song contest in Stockholm over the weekend.
The jury vs popular vote
For those unfamiliar with the Eurovision controversies, the main issue was linked to the voting system. For the first time since its inception, the winner of the Eurovision song contest was not only decided via direct popular vote, but also national juries formed by a body of music industry experts. This proved to be a determining factor in the outcome of the contest and a major point of contention among those tuning into the program.
One could argue that one of the main strengths of Eurovision has been giving viewers the power to directly influence the outcome of a Europe-wide event through their vote. In 2016, this factor suffered a strong blow. This – at least partial – disenchantment, led viewers to recount one of the major charges levelled at European institutions today: the rift between national and institutional voters.
The divergences between domestic and EU policy priorities have been highlighted time and again. The 2005 French and Dutch referenda, where clear majorities of national electorates rejected the European Constitution, are landmarks for those opposed to the EU. In fact, while the French and the Dutch rejected the treaty en masse, the respective governments, supported by the European Commission, managed to pass a light version of the initially planned constitution.
A similar scenario unfolded in April 2016, when a non-binding referendum in the Netherlands saw 60 percent of participants voting against the implementation of an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, only to have the European Commission proposing a VISA-free policy to Kiev less than a month after.
While it may be farfetched to compare the European Union’s representation issues with the voting at an international singing competition, the passions sparked by the Eurovision 2016 contest symbolise this growing detachment between large parts of the European societies with national and supranational institutions governing them.
Conflicts in the neighbourhood
The second aspect that emerged from the Eurovision 2016 song contest is that the EU and the wider European continent continue to be faced by multiple unresolved conflicts. As such, any occasion, even TV entertainment shows, are ripe to be used as a vehicle for rival propaganda messages.
These tensions were evident during the run-up to the competition and indeed throughout the show. France’s choice of selecting Amir Haddad, a French-Israeli citizen, sparked strong criticism from radical anti-Israel groups. This was a sober reminder of the current threat posed by anti-Semitism in France.
Yet it was Ukraine’s entrant that soon became the most talked about sensation of this year’s competition. Since its inception, Eurovision has maintained a strong “no politics” policy in regard to its participants. However, Jamala’s song was a potent political argument in the current rivalry that pits the nationalists in Kiev and the EU against Russia. Her victory, in part due to the jury vote, sparked continent-wide passions. It also highlighted the ongoing political tensions that fracture European society in regard to EU relations with Russia.
Even so, Ukraine was not the only example of the infiltration of politics in this year’s contest. April 2016 has seen the worst violence in over a decade along the Line of Contact separating the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh republic and Azerbaijan. Short but intense combat operations left dozens of dead on the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides leading to fears of a conflict escalation. During one Eurovision semi-final, the Armenian team waved the Nagorno-Karabakh flag in a sign of defiance. Yerevan continues to be locked in deadly skirmishes against Baku forces. The image of a pop singer waving the flag of a contested territory serves to further highlight the usage of the show for nationalist matters.
Given the tensions sparked by unresolved nationalist tensions in 2016, there is a strong likelihood that the Eurovision song contest will continue to be used as a central stage to voice political claims. As the 2017 edition will be held in Ukraine, the main issues are likely to be centered on the status of the Russia-administered Crimea, the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions as well as the entry in Ukraine of Russian artists that may be banned from the country. In the coming years, the contest may also become the centre stage of other separatist and nationalist claims such as the Catalonia, Scottish and South Ossetia ones.
The risk of entertainment politicisation
The overreaching problem with the Eurovision 2016 song contest lies in underscoring the fact that national political rivalries continue to go far beyond the emblematic “vote for your neighbour” tendencies.
After the win by Ukraine, an online petition calling for a recount of votes garnered more than 300,000 signatures in less than 48 hours. In itself, these passions could be normal for any major entertainment and sport event. However, the politicisation of show business sparks a substantial risk as it puts on the line one of the EU’s major strategic assets, its soft-power, and opens it to counter measures by internal and external rivals. This would increasingly make shows such as Eurovision a tool of hybrid informational warfare leading to a heightened polarisation of European societies and challenging the long-term political stability of the EU.