The Political Economy of Eurovision Song Contest

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/31/2010 12:13:00 AM

Appropriately given the EU's current situation, I am reading leading institutional scholar Johan Olsen's Europe in Search of Political Order. Having had the pleasure of meeting him, I am most impressed by this volume. While reading this book, I recently turned on the TV and saw the 55th staging of the strange spectacle known as the Eurovision Song Contest. If you are unfamiliar with Eurovision, it is nearly exactly what its title suggests--a song competition hosted by European countries. In short, it's Europe's Got Talent long before Simon Cowell arrived on the scene. (And, critics would say that many entrants are singularly lacking talent.) Now, what does Eurovision have to do with the search for political order in Europe, you ask? In its own odd way, Eurovision has been a platform for establishing a pan-European identity in the wider integration project. It is a way of creating "we-feeling." As Professor Olsen so aptly puts it:
The level of institutionalization and integration increases as the constitutive units...develop a common public space, civic society and institutions able to educate and socialize individuals into informed citizens with a shared political identity and culture (p. 96).
In a nutshell, this is what Eurovision tries to do. While most Eurovision acts are never to be heard from again, Eurovision has also spawned winners alike world-famous ABBA and Celine Dion. Yes, you may quibble endlessly about the tackiness of it all--the MTV wannabe productions and faithful copping of Anglo-Saxon pop conventions are evident to everybody. Consider, however, that this banality is a means of socializing citizens in European countries--and Europe's neighbouring countries--in the ways of capitalist liberal democracy.

While some say that the football field now represents the (infinitely preferable) arena for competition for European nations than the battlefield, I have recently pointed out that dubious applications of EU migration law to the sporting arena have diluted the identity of national clubs. For all its flaws, Eurovision might be a more honest vision of regional competition that invokes the European identity--more so than the Champions League or even the European Football Championship.

What struck me this year were the following:

1. On a not-so-positive note, many European countries chose not to send entrants to Oslo, the site of this year's competition, because of budgetary constraints. Given sizeable budget deficits in any number of European countries, making catchy MTV-style videos as well as flying, feeding, accommodating, and outfitting contestants is apparently hard to justify:
The Czech Republic, Montenegro, Andorra and Hungary have snubbed this year's 55th competition in Oslo because of cash cuts, organisers admitted. Svante Stockselius, executive supervisor of Eurovision, said: "The economic crisis is affecting us. We have fewer countries competing and they all withdrew for the same reason - cuts."
2. On a more positive note, Turkey finished second in the competition with the entry embedded above. In 2003, it won the whole shebang. IMHO, it is far superior to the German entry that ultimately won. Speaking of which, these two countries figure large into the question of whether Turkey will be allowed to join the EU. Together with France (and to a lesser extent Austria), Germany has long been at the forefront of hindering Turkey's membership prospects--especially over democracy, human rights, and so on and so forth. Hence the notion of a downgraded "privileged partnership" that is being peddled to Turkey instead of full EU membership. Although Israel of all countries has won Eurovision before (even Andorra and Morocco have participated), Turkey's continued participation and strong performances in this event bear notice. If a country can so slavishly copy European throwaway culture, why is there so much skepticism that it cannot blend in if it joined the EU?

Moving back to the unavoidable realm of football, Turkish club Galatasaray has even been a UEFA Cup winner. If you can be "champions" of Europe in song and sport, then there is no sensible reason to be denied membership in the European Union, is there? As MaNga sings above in lyrics that may perhaps apply to Turkey's application for EU accession:

I can see that this could be fate
I can love you more than they hate
Doesn't matter who they will blame
We can beat them at their own game

Whether the game is singing or football, Turkey has indeed demonstrated Europeanization by beating them at their own game. I may love Eurovision more for the ideal it represents than entertainment value, but there are lessons for integration here that we should all take heed of. We could be the same / No matter what they say.

3. Lastly, speaking of the political economy of Eurovision, it's no surprise certain judges didn't give the Turkish entry any points and other voting patterns continuing:
MaNga received 12 points from France, Croatia and Azerbaijan and 10 points from England, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Germany. They were not given points from Greece or Greek Cyprus...

As in earlier years, regional blocks played a huge role in attributing points: Greece gave the maximum of 12 points to Cyprus who returned the favor; Serbia gave its points to Bosnia-Herzegovina, while Belarus' top marks went to Russia.
Since judges and audiences cannot vote for their nation's entry, Eurovision has been used to sort out national loyalties and rivalries in the European context. (Obviously, the Greeks aren't too fond of the Turks given their past run-ins over Cyprus.) Some researchers at Oxford have even used network and cluster analysis to this effect [!] Interesting stuff.