by Klaus Dodds, Royal Holloway, University of London
Between 9-13 May, public attention will be on focused on the City of Liverpool for what will prove to be a highly emotive Eurovision Song Competition (ESC or Eurovision). The European Union observes European Day on 9 May, while the Council of Europe celebrates it on 5 May, as decided in 1964. Whatever date you prefer, early May is when Europeans should be reflecting on ‘peace and unity in Europe’. Liverpool is twinned with a series of European cities, and one of them being the Ukrainian port city of Odessa.
The 2022 ESC was won by Ukraine and in particular the rap group Kalush. Their performance of ‘Stefania’ secured Ukraine’s third ESC victory in the history of their participation of a competition, which dates back to 1956. The organisers of the Eurovision, the European Broadcasting Union was established in 1950 and is based in Switzerland. It is a network of public service broadcasters and works collectively to enrich and sustain the European Broadcasting Area. The BBC is a member of the ESU.
Having secured 631 points in 2022, Kalush were the runaway winners and there was plenty of speculation that the scale of the victory was informed by tremendous sympathy for the country in the aftermath of the full-scale invasion by the Russian Federation.
However, the organisational spirit of the ESC itself is strictly politically neutral. Whatever suggestions might be made about voting patterns, the organisers were quite clear that Russia and Ukraine would be free to participate regardless of the invasion. However, this stance proved to be untenable when a number of other participating countries announced that they would boycott the 2023 Eurovision. The organisers then backtracked and informed Russian broadcasters that there was no possibility of Russia participating in the contest.
After securing such a comprehensive victory in 2022, Ukraine would have rightfully expected to have hosted the 2023 ESC. Location matters and for many winning countries of the Eurovision, being host of the competition in the following year can be a welcome opportunity to manufacture cultural and even political capital. For a country than only secured independence in 1991 from the former Soviet Union, it is notable that Kyiv would have been hosting for a third time. After hosting in 2005 and 2017 following previous Ukrainian success. Ukraine has won Eurovision more times than the inaugural winner, Switzerland.
In light of the ongoing conflict with Russia the decision was taken to locate the 2023 competition in the country of origin of the second place entrant, Sam Ryder and the UK. This was a welcome return to form for a country that has won the Eurovision four times but also found that its entries are capable of being unfavoured for reasons that are not always musical. The UK entry in 2003 was widely seen to have suffered because of criticism of the UK’s decision to support the US-led invasion of Iraq in the same year. The UK’s Liverpool-based Jemini was positioned last with “nul points” in that infamous year. In 2021, James Newman’s song ‘Embers’ received a similar vote and led to speculation that perhaps it was a post-Brexit indictment.
Since Brexit and that 2021 Eurovision humiliation, the then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been a public supporter of Ukraine and its struggle to resist the Russian invasion. Before the competition confirmed Liverpool as an alternative location, Johnson had spoken about the need for the 2023 ESC to be based in Ukraine, and this echoed early Ukrainian determination to host it in their own country. Politically, the situation was awkward for both the UK and Ukraine – the symbolic capital of hosting the Eurovision was not lost on anyone. In the end, the EBU made their final choice in the summer of 2022 – Ukraine’s proposals to host were rejected and the UK as alternative location favoured.
Winning and losing in the Eurovision has changed over the years. While Ireland remains the most successful country, the competition itself has changed. The pool of competitors has grown as Europe’s geopolitics has shifted, especially in the eastern part of the neighbourhood. Australia were invited to join in 2015 and remain involved to this day and they were the first country to participate online in 2021 because of the pandemic. Israel was the first so-called non-European country invited to join in 1973 and the Israeli performer Dana International was the first openly trans-singer to win in 1998. Some countries have simply disappeared. Yugoslavia last performed in 1992. Russia performed in 1994 for the first time in the post-Soviet era. The voting system has also changed over the years – and moved from a jury vote composed of music professionals to a semi-final and final system where viewer voting even from non-participating countries such as the United States will count. As the ESC has explained over the years, changes have been brought in to ensure that the basic format endures and yet at the same recognises that it is increasingly framed as more than an ‘European’ cultural/musical event.
What does all of this mean for geographers? Firstly, there is an underlying popular or even kitsch geopolitics to ESC. This event, when launched in 1956, was intended to celebrate European unity but has also become a forum for belonging and identity politics. Countries have found it awkward at times to participate and engage with one another. Georgia was not allowed to participate in the 2009 event because their entry was judged to be anti-Russian. A year earlier both countries had been involved in short war with one another. Ukraine’s victory in 2015 was controversial because Russia accused the song ‘1944’ of being anti-Soviet and anti-Russian. Secondly, voting geographies do exist. Neighbours tend to vote for one another and smaller countries such as Ireland and Sweden have won Eurovision more times than France, UK and Germany. Singing in English can be a help as well. Thirdly, the ESC is also wrapped up in a politics of fundamental recognition. In 2004, Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus acknowledged one another via the voting system. Recognition can also come through the acknowledgment of diversity. Dana International’s triumph in 1998 was widely hailed as a breakthrough moment in Israel. In 2022, around 200 million people tuned into Eurovision – audiences are truly global. Finally, for the organisers of Eurovision there is a fundamental tension between supporting a non-political event and then having to manage, however imperfectly, the messy realities of geopolitics.
About the author: Klaus Dodds is Executive Dean for the School of Life Sciences and Environment at Royal Holloway University of London and author of Border Wars (Penguin 2022). Klaus was a former editor of The Geographical Journal and former trustee of the Royal Geographical Society with IBG.
Suggested Further Reading
Dodds, K. (2006) Popular geopolitics and audience dispositions: James Bond and the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2006.00199.x
Geography Review (2023) The Geography of Eurovision, Available at: https://www.hoddereducationmagazines.com/magazine/geography-review/36/4/the-geography-of-eurovision/
Jamie Halliwell (2021) ‘Are you sure you’re not gay?’: Straight and bisexual male experiences of Eurovision Song Contest fandom, Social & Cultural Geography, Available at: 10.1080/14649365.2021.2000016
The featured image for this post has been shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Credit: Vugar Ibadov.