Eurovision: National self-portrayal or building a European identity?


Although the Eurovision Song Contest was not intended as an instrument of European integration, it has become a symbol of it – even if the relationship between national and European identity is contradictory.

Auf Deutsch.

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Audience at the semi-final of the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool.

I was probably naive to use a French loanword. In February, I pinned my hopes on the singer Marie Reim and her song "Naiv" in the pre-selection process for this year's German entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden. The entry is a catchy pop hit with all the ingredients of a typical Eurovision entry: a melodramatic song about attraction and deception in love, which you could easily sing along to while performing exuberant dance moves with friends in a night club. Marie Reim wore a glittering, semi-sheer red lace dress for her performance and was accompanied by sexy male dancers. So the performance had exactly that camp flair that is the trademark of Eurovision. And she sang in German: Only one of the other eight songs in the national pre-selection show was in German, and none of them sounded like typical German pop hits.

As an old-school Eurovision fan, I still prefer it when songs are sung in the official languages of their countries of origin. It is precisely this linguistic diversity that makes Eurovision unique compared to other singing competitions on TV: United in diversity, as the motto of the European Union so beautifully puts it. Since 1999, the ESC rules no longer require songs to be performed in the official languages of the respective countries, which is why most entries have been performed in English since then. Only a few entries from Germany have been in German, and none at all since 2007. Germany even won the Eurovision Song Contest in 2010 with Lena's song "Satellite”. It was one of the few German entries since the turn of the millennium that really were catchy, memorable tunes and would even become “earworms”. Without German-language songs, Eurovision has become a little less European, however, as linguistic diversity not only helps to distinguish the different national identities from one another; it also embodies the cultural richness of a united Europe.

The relationship between national and European identity at the ESC is a contradictory one. The dominance of English has made one of Europe's oldest and most popular cultural events less European (although this year's ESC will be a little more linguistically diverse than last year's); however, the ESC as a whole is full of contradictions. These contradictions often first have to be explained to non-Europeans who are not familiar with this rough diamond of European cultural heritage. For example, that the ESC is so often ridiculed, but at the same time is extremely popular. We are united by our Eurotrash ... or should it be Eurotreasure ...? Or that there is always a political undertone to the competition, even though the organisers always insist that it is a non-political contest ... The fact that Australia and Israel are represented even though they are not in Europe ... And that although the competition entries represent individual countries (often not in the official national languages), the ESC is a driving force for European cultural integration. There is no other cultural event that unites Europeans like the ESC, which has attracted around 160 million viewers in recent years ... Oh yes, and you can cheer for your own country, but you can't vote for your own entry. This forces fans to think about other Europeans – and what connects them.

The Eurovision Song Contest is the biggest voting spectacle in Europe.

And probably the biggest contradiction of all: This non-political event has the largest round of voting in all of Europe. Since its beginnings in 1956, the ESC has been organised by the European Broadcasting Union, in institutional terms a completely independent association of national public broadcasters from Europe and the Mediterranean region. Since public televoting was introduced in the late 1990s (around the same time as the language rule was abolished), the wide geographical spread of its members and the European Broadcasting Union's non-political membership criteria have allowed more people in more countries across Europe to vote in a joint event each year than ever before. In comparison, elections to the European Parliament only take place every five years and only in the Member States of the European Union. In 2024, 27 countries will take part in the European elections, compared to 37 for the ESC. In the elections to the European Parliament, citizens only elect candidates from their own country. In the ESC, on the other hand, they can only vote for participants from other countries.

Europeans like to analyse the results of Europe's biggest voting event in a folklore-type way. They look for alliances and tensions in a global context of diasporic, post-colonial, regional, religious and sexual identities that connect people across national borders. One of the most popular entries this year is "Rim Tim Tagi Dim" by Baby Lasagna from Croatia. The song is about emigrants, particularly from Croatia, who have emigrated to other, more prosperous regions of the EU for economic reasons since their country's accession in 2013. It may well be that these Croatian expats will vote for Baby Lasagna from Germany or Sweden shortly before they vote for German and Swedish candidates in the EU parliamentary elections.

The European Broadcasting Union continues to describe the ESC as a non-political event so that international conflicts do not undermine this demonstration of European unity, which should actually be underpinned by supranational harmony. According to a rule of the contest, all participating national broadcasters must also transmit all competition entries presented during the programme, even from countries with which their respective country may not have diplomatic relations or be involved in a military or political conflict. This applied to Greece and Turkey, for example, when they first took part in the competition in the 1970s. Or Armenia and Azerbaijan, since they were admitted to the ESC in 2006 and 2008 respectively. And Russia and Ukraine since the beginning of Russia's military aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Or when countries like Russia, where LGBTIQ rights are suppressed, had to watch as a bearded drag queen from Austria won the competition: Conchita Wurst, who became famous throughout Europe after winning the 2014 ESC with the song "Rise Like a Phoenix".

In contrast to Conchita Wurst, the vast majority of the performers remain national stars rather than becoming that well-known across Europe. This even applies to many of those actually winning the contest. Of the 1,758 songs submitted to the ESC from 1956 to 2024, a number of them became international hits that are still played throughout Europe today, such as numbers by megastars Domenico Modugno, ABBA and Céline Dion. However, the success of most Eurovision entries is limited to their hit potential at home.

The formative influence of the ESC on European pop culture can also be seen in typical sayings that have become commonplace across the continent, such as the greeting “good evening, Europe”; or how the phrases "twelve points" (the maximum number of points a country can award on a scale of 1 to 8, 10 and 12) or “zero points” can be used throughout Europe to express approval or disapproval. The French versions of this, such as "nul points" or "douze points" have also become catchphrases, as French is the second official language of the contest and is still used in the show's presentation scripts. This is a legacy of the early post-war years, when French was still the language of international diplomacy.

Even if the ESC entries usually only leave a lasting impression in their own countries, the competition has actually influenced our style of singing and use of language in Europe. The ESC was created at the same time as the founding organisations of the European Union, but was not originally intended as a European integration project. The contest was conceived by the European Broadcasting Union in the mid-1950s to promote the development of emerging Western European television services through the exchange of programmes and technical cooperation. This was backed by the organisation's Eurovision network, which gave the competition its name. At a time when national television broadcasters were still in their infancy, this cooperation provided a good opportunity to exchange programmes at low cost. This also resulted in an unexpected development: When the Eurovision network adopted the circle of twelve stars as its logo in 1954, it became the symbol of a European organisation for the first time. In 1955, the Council of Europe adopted the circle of twelve golden stars as the European flag. In 1985, it became the flag of the European Economic Community. Today it is the flag of its successor organisation: the European Union.

Although the ESC was not intended as an instrument of European integration, it has become a symbol of it.

The ESC is probably the most shining example of a television programme that connects Europeans through a simultaneous, transnational broadcast. Although the European Broadcasting Union and other European organisations have made other attempts in this direction, most of them have not lasted. Television has remained a largely national matter. The European Economic Community even acted as a supporter of the contest a few times in the late 1980s and 1990s when it tried to develop a cultural policy for a European identity, taking inspiration from Eurovision. The European Union has not yet succeeded in organising a cultural event that can hold a candle to the ESC in terms of popularity.

Although the ESC was not intended as an instrument of European integration, it has become a symbol of it. However, only a few competition entries were ever explicit songs of praise for European integration. The most prominent example is Italy's winning entry from 1990: “Insieme: 1992” by Toto Cutugno; this year Joost Klein from Holland will sing “Europapa”. However, there is no other international singing competition in the world that enjoys the longevity and popularity of the ESC (the US and Asian adaptation attempts of recent years have not really taken off). This shows that there is something specifically European about the ESC that goes beyond national identifications.

Even though both institutions call themselves a "union", the internationalist goals of the European Broadcasting Union should not be confused with the supra-nationalist objectives of the European Union. The fact that the Eurovision network was so successful in creating a common market for radio and television programmes was probably due to the European Broadcasting Union distancing itself from the policies of other Western European organisations and, in particular, their supranationalist aims. Switzerland, host of the very first ESC and seat of the European Broadcasting Union, has never joined the European Union. And the United Kingdom, which continues to take part in the ESC and even hosted it on behalf of Ukraine in 2023, has not been part of the European Union since 2020. This is why the European Broadcasting Union is so persistent in referring to its non-political orientation.

While the ESC has created a European identity, it has also reshaped national identities.

As you can see from the members of the European Broadcasting Union themselves, television in Europe is still very much a national matter, as is pop music. The ESC has united Europeans by creating common cultural references. More so than transnational icons, however, it has created national icons and shaped national identities. The patriotism displayed in the enthusiasm for one's own national entries at the ESC reflects the robust nature of national identities, despite or perhaps precisely because of the European integration processes. So while the international ESC competition has created a European identity, it has also reshaped national identities and cast them in a more attractive, modern and enduring light through new media, technologies and fashions.

However, the ESC also shows that these national identities are not unmixed or unique phenomena. Rather, they are reshaped through cultural transfer. This can be seen in expressions such as "naïveté", "earworm", "good evening, Europe", "douze points" and "Baby Lasagna", as well as in “Schlager” or “pop” music, a popular genre that emerged in the interwar period and had its origins in operetta. The German word “Schlager” frequently appears as a loan word in other European languages and joins other terms such as chanson and rock'n'roll, which have helped shape the ESC, in the multilingual dictionary of music.

However, Marie Reim will not be representing Germany at this year's Eurovision Song Contest, after Isaak won the national pre-selection show with his English-language entry "Always on the Run". But I'm not being "naïve" when I hope that Germany will be represented by a German-language hit next year. Germans should be proud of their pop songs and recognise their catchy tune potential, because at some point there will surely be "douze points" again. And as the ESC has always wholeheartedly accepted the contradictions between the national and the European, the contest should also become more European again and celebrate linguistic diversity as a European treasure.

This article appeared first in German on

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Washington, DC.