As yet another Eurovision comes and goes, the next day analysis here in the UK is as predictable as the sequins, feathers and glitter that accompany the song contest each year. Once again there is collective hand wringing over what the contest has become, and questioning over whether the UK should continue funding it. But as standard as all of the British complaining over the contest has become, there was a new starkness to the exasperation of perennial British host Terry Wogan this year when Russia emerged the winner, as he muttered at the end of the program, "Western participants have to decide whether they want to do this again.”
For my American readers, perhaps a little explanation is in order. Eurovision is a yearly song contest which has been held in Europe since 1956. Each country selects a song to represent them, and they all battle it out in the grand finale, with people all over Europe phoning in their votes to determine the winner. The contestants could be already famous in their given countries or they could be previously unheard of. Some famous past winners of the competition include Abba and Celine Dion.
As an admitted Europhile I love it. On one hand, the inevitable political dynamic is fascinating to watch. On the other, the complete over-the-top campness is hilarious. I had a party at my place to watch the finals Saturday night and we had a good showing, with people from nine different countries (admittedly four of them aren't in Europe!). It's actually a pretty fun thing to have a party around because you can pick a country to route for and really get into it.
Of course the reality is that since the late 90's Eurovision has been less about singing and more about politics. During the cold war it was only Western Europe that participated in the contest, and it was set up so that each country would have the same amount of voting power regardless of its size. Until 1997 countries chose their pick by an internal jury, but since then the winners have been chosen by televoting by the populace.
All of this seemed to work fairly well during the Cold War, but since the fall of the iron curtain it's created a problem. One only needs to look at a map of Europe to see the reason. As you go west to east on the continent countries tend to get smaller and smaller, broken up into balkanized entities. The break-up of the former Yugoslavia exacerbated this. By my count there are now 12 Slavic countries participating in the contest, each of them with the same voting power as Germany or France. And there are now 21 former Communist Eastern European countries participating. Logically, it makes sense that block voting would have developed, with Slavs voting for other Slavs and Eastern Europeans voting for their neighbours. And with each of these countries getting 12 points to allocate, it's no wonder that the West has calculated that under the current voting system - which has been in place since 1975 (long before Eastern Europe entered the contest) - Western Europe can never again win Eurovision.
Now all of the carping over this may seem a little silly. After all, it's just a campy song contest that most people in Western Europe don't take too seriously any more. But there is an essential problem here. The four Western European countries that launched the contest - Germany, France, Spain and the UK - fund it. Because they are the ones paying for it, it is essential that the contest maintains their interest. For this reason, these four countries automatically make it into the finals and don't have to participate in the semifinal runoff. But with no hope that they can win, how much longer will audiences in these countries keep tuning in? Within a few years, these countries could find themselves paying for an Eastern European contest that nobody in Western Europe watches.
So it seems to me some sort of solution needs to be devised. Either Eastern Europe needs to start paying up, or the voting rules need to be changed. For their part, the contest has become incredibly popular in Eastern Europe, serving both to foster some of these new countries' emerging sense of nationhood and also making them feel a part of the European club after decades of Russian dominance. But if it were to become the exclusive domain of Eastern Europe, the contest would lose it's meaning as a pan-European showcase of unity.
A collection of music moguls and MPs today are calling for the UK to pull out of the contest until the rules are reformed. These calls have followed the broadcast in the UK for many years, but Russia's win may prove a catalyst for this to actually happen. Diplomatic relations between the UK and a resurgent and increasingly aggressive Russia are incredibly strained at the moment, and it may be more than the Brits can stomach to have to sit through a Putin-controlled Eurovision contest in Moscow next year. I think a British friend at my party summed it up after seeing Russia win when he remarked, "Guess this means more military parades."
The prospect of a bankrolling country not participating next year would be dire news indeed for the Eurovision organisers. It will be interesting to see how this develops.s time next year.