The European Broadcasting Union, which organises Eurovision, is like the European Central Bank: whenever it’s called upon to make an important decision, you can always rely upon it to make the wrong one, and it’s wholly dependent on the mixture of goodwill and inertia that leads the international community not to go on about it. Its bet is a generalised feeling of “Oh well, it made the wrong call again. Never mind. Better luck next year/next global financial crisis”, and it’s one that mainly pays off. This time tomorrow we’ll have forgotten that it wouldn’t let Volodymyr Zelenskiy address the contest, in lieu of Ukraine hosting it, because it didn’t want the event politicised. So I just want to pause for one second to remark how dumb that was.
Inevitably, Ukraine was all anyone was talking about: it was the surtext and subtext, from the opening song, Stefania by the Kalush Orchestra, last year’s Ukrainian winners, to the rousing centre, a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone sung by the Netherlands’ Duncan Laurence and also everyone else. The war was lambasted from every angle, while Putin responded to his pariah status by shelling the home town of Ukraine’s entrants, Tvorchi, with the fabulous vindictiveness of an uninvited fairy godmother. To think that by keeping a lid on Ukraine’s president the night could somehow float above world events was laughable: it was a four-hour anti-war protest, with extra neon.
The aim of maintaining neutrality misunderstands either politics or Eurovision, or probably both. Eurovision has been political since its inception, with voting preferences between countries tracking political allegiances closely enough that this has its own field of academic study analysing which countries are in which clusters and how that has changed over time. I feel sure there’s something self-fulfilling about it. The Nordic bloc has appeared thick as thieves since serious statistical analysis began (the late 90s). This built its status as a geopolitical entity, which in turn begat a stronger cultural identity. How could you depoliticise that?
The night itself has always performed a specific political function, something like a family Christmas, where warring parties bring their dispute for arbitration by the group: Turkey v Greece, Armenia v Azerbaijan, Georgia v Russia. It’s actually very like a family Christmas, since the group never really knows how to perform its judicial role and tends to pick a side at random, depending on how drunk it is. Nobody said that Eurovision was effective at politics; it’s just anything but apolitical.
What it does best, politically, is signal disapprobation, nations coming together to chastise or expel the miscreant; it’s much more subtle than a mob. There are degrees of disapproval, from expulsion (Russia in 2022), to a recoverable but painful nul points (the UK in 2003, which was absolutely understood as a response to the invasion of Iraq, the quality of Jemini’s song notwithstanding).
I’ll tell you what was lucky – that the night fell a week after the coronation, not before. If we’d been looking at Penny Mordaunt’s teal battledress after Netta’s insectile warrior carapace, or King Charles’s 40-foot red velvet train post-Croatia’s spectacular floral military wear, we’d have been thinking: this is all very camp, highly melodramatic, just like Eurovision, only not as good – come on, he didn’t even strip to his pants. All rituals are alike, but they’re not all born equal: they exist to muster us around a principle. The principle of Eurovision – that there’s more that unites us than divides us, or in Liverpool’s words, “united we stand” – may be schmaltzy, but at least (unlike, say, “fealty”) it means something.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist