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Eden Golan representing Israel with the song "Hurricane" during a press conference with the entries that advanced to the final after the second semi-final. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Opinion Eurovision was always political, but the world it now operates in has changed

The EBU is striving for calm in the midst of chaos in this year’s competition, according to Johnny Fallon.

LAST UPDATE | 11 May

SOMETIMES I FEEL quite a bit of sympathy for the EBU when it comes to Eurovision.

At the end of the day, this is a group of television executives who, because they hold a song contest, find themselves at the heart of geo-political events, controversies and international spats or diplomacy. 

This was brought into sharp focus earlier today with the confirmation by the EBU that the Dutch artist, Joost Klein would not be permitted to compete in the competition this year, after much speculation.

Contrary to the theory that he was disqualified over an interaction he had with the Israeli entry during a press conference, the EBU said instead the decision had been made due to “a complaint made by a female member of the production crew after an incident following his performance in Thursday night’s semi-final”. Swedish police are now investigating. It follows a tumultuous week of protests, booing and calls for boycotts of the competition over Israel’s participation. 

Eurovision is of course the most political non-political event you can think of. But that’s humans for you. We are all political animals. It’s no surprise that some of the most avid followers of democracy and voting, like myself, are also among the biggest fans of the Eurovision Song Contest. It draws us in by letting us see how societies shift, move, vote, display anger, hope and fear. We study it and all the patterns it gives us just like an election. The poor EBU might want to keep out of politics, but they can’t. Once a flag can be waved you can bet that we all get stuck in. That said, Eurovision is remarkable in being one of the only events where such levels of flag waving and nationalism can be displayed and yet be such a collection of peace, support and genuine good feelings.

The Israel question

This year, the controversy centred around Israel and its participation. Not for the first time, either. There were lots of calls to boycott the competition when Israel hosted it previously, too.

But let’s get some facts out of the way. A group of TV executives should not be the deciders of who or what is right in international affairs or conflicts. The problem this year is that people point to the expulsion of Russia but the EBU has tried, vainly, to explain that they do not expel countries, only TV companies from their membership.

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The EBU suspended the Russian state TV from the group in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine for what it cited as ‘persistent breaches of membership obligations and violation of public service values.’ In short, the TV company was suspended because some of its actions in coverage breached EBU rules. Once you are out of the EBU, you cannot enter the contest. The Israeli state broadcaster however has not contravened these rules and is at great pains to point out that the Israeli government is not always happy with its actions. This leaves the EBU in the position that if no rule is breached, they cannot suspend a member.

Now, if we step back and understand these are TV companies, then we could see that it’s probably wise they do not decide on what governments they like and don’t like. Otherwise, maybe Ireland could have been banned at the height of the IRA campaign, or the UK for activities in Northern Ireland, or Croatia, Serbia or Greece and Turkey, or Armenia and Azerbaijan for their conflicts. Maybe General Franco, who famously is reputed to have bribed juries, so desperate was he to see Spain win, might have been out due to Spain not being a democracy.

malmo-sweden-thursday-09-may-2024-joost-klein-representing-the-netherlands-with-the-song-europapa-during-a-press-conference-with-the-entries-that-advanced-to-the-final-after-the-second-semi-fina Joost Klein was representing the Netherlands with the song Europapa but was booted out of the competition today. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

No, TV executives should not be the deciders of right and wrong, they should have their own rules and stick to them. The rest of us, though, will make their life difficult. We want to get very political. Public votes and juries are equally vulnerable to following the mood of the time. We will take sides. We will vote for countries we like and against countries we see as aggressors or dislike.

Could Israel win?

Israel in the final will definitely get votes from people who believe that they are being harshly condemned and other countries will gain in votes as people opposed to the brutal war on Palestine will seek to back any country that might ensure Israel does not win the contest.

Strangely, controversy can help a country. Nobody really thought Israel would be a top contender a week ago. A good performance in the semi final and a rumour that there is a huge sympathy vote for them and suddenly the bookies have slashed the odds. 

The suggestion from an Italian TV company that seemed to leak details of their public vote showing a big vote for Israel has fuelled this. But a lot can change on the last day.

Fans will boo countries they don’t like. The EBU doesn’t like this, but there is little they can do. It happened to Russia in the past, it has happened to other contestants. We simply cannot leave our political beliefs at the door. And why should we? After all, contestants may be selected by a TV company, but they fly their national flag. That means something. Voting blocs exist too. You won’t win because of them, but you must get a solid vote from your block to avoid disaster. These blocs are political too, and yes, we are all part of one and yes, they have existed throughout the contest.

It’s all political

If you could remove politics from the contest, it would kill it. It brings a joy to people to see the chance to feel national pride in something so innocuous. I was raised in a household that was bathed in republican glory on the nights of Ireland’s Eurovision success which was made all the sweeter when it was the UK that we defeated in the end.

Artists and musicians are political in their own right too. They are some of the most important people in helping to shape societal views. The ability of the contest to welcome people and its long association with gay and trans rights is not something the EBU ever purposely intended. Still, it was a natural evolution of fans and contestants alike that has been so important and impressive in recent decades.

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It might be fair to say the EBU is non-political. But Eurovision is very political. Political though in a way that we don’t often see. A place where countries ravaged by war, living under dictators, or at the periphery of international understanding have been able to showcase themselves and make a point.

The challenge is growing, however. The contest has greatly expanded and this brings in many new cultures, ideas and arguments. That is not a bad thing, but it will make it harder for the EBU to keep everyone onside. The world has changed too. As the contest expanded in the 90s, it was in a world where there was a hope that major political questions were settled. From Ireland to the Middle East there were peace processes, and within a decade democracy would be the overwhelming choice for government. The EU expansion in the 2000s seemed to solidify that. But all things change. We are no longer in the heady days of the late 90s when anything seemed possible. Walls are going back up. Governments are changing their systems. Bombs are falling, new international enemies coming to the fore and old alliances being challenged.

This new world is a lot more divisive. It forms hard opinions, uses fake news and aggressively argues the points.

In such a world, the fun and madness of Eurovision is more welcome and needed than ever. But in such a world politics will creep evermore into decisions, votes, and contestants. 

Johnny Fallon is a political commentator, author and voice of ‘The Johnny Fallon Podcast’.