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Good To Know: The Eurovision Song Contest

Why Eurovision is a model of the best and worst of international cooperation.

- May 7, 2024
The Eurovision Song Contest 2012 was the 57th Eurovision Song Contest. It was held in the Baku Crystal Hall in Azerbaijan
The Eurovision Song Contest 2012 was held in the Baku Crystal Hall in Azerbaijan (cc) Vugarİbadov, via Wikimedia Commons and Canva.

Many institutions promote international cooperation and the so-called liberal international order, including the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, NATO, and the European Union. But one institution, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), shines brightest, thanks to its annual celebration of song and sequins: the Eurovision Song Contest.

Eurovision is staunchly non-political, but that stance has done little to stem the politics both on and behind the stage. Hidden behind beaded costumes, fireworks, and a flaming piano are the same institutional structures, member strategies, and domestic political pressure that regularly support, stress, and bias other attempts at international cooperation.

Curious about Eurovision politics? Here’s a primer. 

Eurovision started as a form of multilateral cooperation

Like many manifestations of European cooperation, the Eurovision Song Contest (aka ESC or Eurovision) arose from efforts to increase economic efficiency – and boost post-World War II European unity. In the early 1950s, only a handful of public broadcasters could afford to produce television programs. As an alliance of public service media, the EBU created the Eurovision Network to generate shared programming

The Eurovision Song Contest was just one component of this broader effort, although it has been the most successful. In 2022, Guinness World Records proclaimed Eurovision the “longest-running annual international televised music competition in the world.” While the ESC’s debut in 1956 served as an early experiment in live, simulcast, transnational television broadcasting, its subsequent seven-decade run has served as an experiment in multinational cooperation across wars, financial crises, and shifts in national sovereignty.

Participating countries now get one song

Broadly speaking, the ESC invites EBU alliance members to submit to the annual competition one new, short song written by a national, to be performed live in the language of their choice by an individual or band that’s not larger than six members. Rules on the length, language, number of performers, eligible countries, and even the number of songs per country have changed repeatedly over the years. From 1955 to 1996, national juries of experts distributed points to select the winners. But starting in 1997, some countries began allowing telephone voting from the public. 

Today, the ESC selects winners by combining the points provided by the national juries of experts, the nationally aggregated public vote, and the rest-of-world vote. Importantly, neither juries nor the public may vote for the song from their own nation.

In Eurovision’s early years, alliance members’ participation was inconsistent. Only seven countries (less than a third of the eligible pool) competed in the first competition in 1956. Today, more than 52 countries have competed at least once, with Sweden and Ireland tied for most wins. 

Winning has distinct perks that go beyond the satisfaction of besting the neighbors in front of an estimated world audience of 162 million people. The winning country has the opportunity to host the competition the next year. And the winner gets the added benefit of an automatic bypass into the following year’s semi-final selection process.

Membership has its privileges – but it’s a biased system

Post-war broadcasting cooperation in Europe had many false starts as Western European countries sought to limit the power of the Soviet Union within proposed institutional designs. The EBU’s members are the broadcasters, not the governments, but sovereignty issues have always been central. 

The EBU is open to all public service broadcasters in the European Broadcasters Area, an area that extends past geographic Europe to include North Africa and the Middle East. To join, broadcasters must be in countries previously recognized by the now-defunct International Broadcasting Union or by the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

These recognition rules sped along the participation of some countries while creating roadblocks for others. Today, the EBU includes 113 member organizations from 56 countries – participation by member broadcasters from Russia and Belarus currently is suspended. At the same time, the EBU recently extended ESC participation rights to Australia, a country that is very far from its mandate.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union rapidly expanded the ranks of the EBU and, subsequently, Eurovision submissions, resulting in the development of a semi-final selection process. Since 2000, Eurovision’s primary backers – currently France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom – have been able to skip the semi-finals, thanks to an automatic place in the competition’s finals. 

Protesting this advantage as well as new voting rules, Turkey left the ESC in 2016 despite the competition’s domestic popularity. Other countries – most recently Bulgaria, Montenegro, and North Macedonia – have exited due to the costs of participation. In the wake of its and Belarus’s suspension, Russia announced the planned 2024 revival of Intervision – a Eurovision substitute composed of Russian allies.

Yes, the voting rules matter

Since its conception, the ESC voting rules have repeatedly changed, slowly incorporating increased direct democracy as a balance against the national juries of experts. Most recently, the rules have allowed votes from “the rest of the world” to count, and the ESC also moved to a public-only vote for the two semi-finals in which 31 acts will vie for the 20 open slots in the Grande Finale. 

In the current scheme, jury and public votes combine to select the winner, but the two voting segments have not aligned well. With the 50-50 weighting, 2023 fan favorite “Cha-Cha-Cha” by Finnish singer Käärijä lost to jury-preferred “Tattoo” (the Swedish entry) despite winning the second highest share of the public vote (85%) in Eurovision history. In contrast, the public vote did determine the 2022 winner, sending Ukraine’s “Stefania” soaring into first place by providing them 94% of the maximum possible points from the public. 

The debate over the use of expert juries mirrors broad democratic debates about the legitimacy of technocrats, especially during the process of European integration. Supporters of juries note that they promote “non-commercial” acts and aid diversity. Those opposed – including my son and his friends – question why these particular elites get so much say.

Is there an optimal voting system? The current structure limits the distribution of points by its reliance on rank order. Each national jury ranks their top ten, and thus songs receive 1 to 8, 10, and 12 points, respectively. Thus, even the most popular song can gain no more than 12 points from the jury and only two more points than the second most popular song, regardless of the jurors’ assessment of the differential between the favored and less favored songs. The ESC recently updated how individual juror preferences affect the national jury’s ranking and, thus, point distribution. The new system preferences juror agreement by under-weighting individual juror rankings that strongly deviate from the majority.

Game theorists Victor Ginsburgh and Juan Moreno-Ternero highlight the distributional consequences of current and previous point distribution rules. They suggest that to overcome potential biases and more effectively distribute excess support, Eurovision would benefit from instituting a voting procedure based on the Shapley value. This alternative to proportionality, developed by Nobel Prize-winning economist Lloyd Shapley, aims to provide a more fair distribution in cooperative games.

However, no rules can prevent attempts by national juries or voters to circumvent them via collusion. Indeed, Eurovision 2022 had a six-country vote trading scandal.

Voting reflects soft power – and interesting voting blocs 

Setting aside the direct collusion scandal, standard Eurovision voting highlights institutional political alliances beyond cultural similarity. Countries accuse each other of participating in voting blocs. Cyprus, for instance, gave Greece the maximum 12 points 26 of the 31 times they had the opportunity to do so. 2023 marked the first time in 8 consecutive years that Cyprus didn’t award its first place ranking – 12 points – to Greece. In contrast, Cyprus did not give a single point to Turkey until 2003. (Turkey participated for the first time in 1975, soon after invading Cyprus in 1974.) Other consistent pairs are the United Kingdom and Ireland, France and Germany, and Finland and Sweden.

Scholars note distinct Eurovision voting blocs but disagree whether these arise from culture and linguistics, or politics. Intriguingly, ESC votes may help better measure the cultural affinity supporting other types of international relations. One literature review by Gad Yair found multiple studies supporting the use of ESC votes to explain trade patterns.

Public votes can be a form of censure 

Many in the U.K. claim that the European voters have continued to punish British entries for the outcome of the 2016 referendum, which started Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, aka Brexit. Careful analysis by the BBC tells another story: Britain has fared just as badly post-Brexit referendum as prior to 2016.

More recently, voting has clearly reflected the public’s response to international conflict. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Ukraine’s entry that year received a first or second ranking from the public in all but three countries. In return, Ukraine’s public voted heavily for Poland and Lithuania, both of which opened their borders to Ukrainian refugees and have provided vocal support at the E.U. and U.N. The public pattern was so different from the Ukrainian jury, which did not reward those two countries, that Ukraine’s culture minister published an apology

I would like to address our closest friends in Europe and express my personal position on the evaluation given by the jury from Ukraine to Poland and Lithuania. This assessment in no way reflects our real attitude towards you, our closest friends in Europe.

Israel’s participation in 2024 is already fraught. Sweden, the host, has tightened the security in Malmo, where the contest is taking place. The EBU rejected Israel’s first and second submissions for being too political due to references to Hamas’s Oct. 7, 2023 invasion and hostage-taking. In light of rising protests against Israel’s response in Gaza, the current Israeli entry is expected to pay a cost in public voting.

Does the ESC framework have actual political clout? 

In 2013, the Greek government moved to immediately shut down Greece’s public broadcaster, citing 2008 austerity measures. Then the EBU stepped in to provide protesting employees a temporary satellite channel until domestic uproar led to a reversal in the government’s policy. And in 2016, the EBU raised concerns in Poland, when proposed media law changes would have placed the public television broadcaster under the direct control of the government. 

Israel’s winning 2018 entry – Toy by Netta – likely saved the independence of Israel’s Public Broadcasting Corporation (IPBC), which had been under siege by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Unhappy with the IPBC’s news coverage, the government had passed a bill to split apart the corporation in the name of market competition. When the EBU noted the changes would cost Israel its EBU membership – and thus the opportunity to host the Eurovision competition – Netanyahu reversed course. 

That said, the threat of suspension did little to stop Russia’s invasion of fellow members Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine (in 2014 and 2022) as the EBU has, in general, sought to remain “apolitical.” In 2014, the crowd booed the Russian entry so loudly that the 2015 hosts utilized anti-booing technology. Russia withdrew in 2017 when Ukraine hosted. Russia, perhaps provocatively, had selected a singer who had performed in Russian-held Crimea, and had then received a three-year travel ban from Ukraine. For its part, Ukraine was unwilling to lift the singer’s ban, even when the EBU director threatened to ban Ukraine in return. Even in 2022, the EBU initially stood by Russia’s participation and bowed only after numerous other members threatened to boycott. This year, many called for a similar boycott unless the EBU banned Israel, but the movement lost momentum.

Unity, conformity – and domestic political divergence

Eurovision’s motto may be “united by music,” but countries’ selection processes vary as much for Eurovision as the variations within other domestic political structures. Each national broadcaster determines the mechanism to select their country’s Eurovision submission. Many countries have relied on closed internal selection by the broadcaster, while others organize national competitions to be judged either by juries or, increasingly, the viewing public. 

Which process results in better songs? According to recent analyses, national competition songs have the better results: 52 out of 67 wins (78%). Of course, any good political scientist would ask this next question: Why do certain countries choose internal selection while others choose national competitions? That would make for an excellent dissertation topic. 

Additional reading:

Alexandra Guisinger is a Good Authority contributor. Ari Anofi also provided research support for this article.