Eurovision: Coming together or drawing apart?

“Come Together” was the motto of the Eurovision Song Contest 2016 in Stockholm. Together with partners Open VLD, ALDE Party, LYMEC and Willemsfonds, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom seized this topic in organizing a panel discussion on music and politics, followed by a public viewing of Eurovision. The purpose was to use Eurovision as an occasion where Europeans from all walks of life come together in celebration of music to discuss the interplay between music and politics. Especially during troubled times for the European Union, we felt Eurovision would be a chance to set a positive focus on Europe and what artists are doing to promote liberal values.

Taking place on the same day as the Brussels Pride Parade, the event had a particular focus on music’s role in breaking down social stereotypes and discrimination. In true partnership with multiple European and Belgian partners we were proud to host a diverse and interested crowd for a discussion on the political dimension of Eurovision. The event succeeded not only in bringing together Belgians with other Europeans, but also succeeded in cementing ties between young liberals from the French and Flemish language communities.

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Since the start of the contest in 1956, performers and songwriters have brought politics into the game. This may result from the entry itself, the origin of the participants or controversy surrounding the host country. Although the rules of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in theory forbids political lyrics, it seldom succeeds in eliminating politics from the contest altogether, explained Raf van Bedts, Eurovision expert and Policy Advisor from Studiecentrum Albert Maertens. Instead, politics constantly surfaces as a dominant theme of Eurovision Song Contests past and present. Two of the most remarkable examples were the performance of Dana International in 1998 and Conchita Wurst in 2014, both challenging discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.

“Our fight, your rights” spelled one banner during the immediately preceding Brussels Pride Parade, and both Bedts and Polish Member of Parliament Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus stressed the responsibility of decision-makers to fight for the rights of those who are discriminated against. Scheuring-Wielgus stressed that in her traditionally conservative country, Eurovision helped to mainstream the fight against discrimination of the LGBTQ community. She was adamant in stressing the impact music can have on politics and society. Eurovision is one scene where music can have an impact and Scheuring-Wielgus hoped that next year’s Polish contribution will reflect the popular opposition to the ruling PiS Party’s agenda of undermining rule of law. Examples of entries with political messages abound in this year’s contest, said van Bedts, who pointed out that the Greek contribution focused on the refugee crisis while the Dutch and Israeli contributions both featured LGBTQ singers.

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Eurovision has often been stigmatized as a predominantly LGBTQ event, although in reality it catches the imagination of so many different people. Raf van Bedts, concluded with a clear message to the audience, that Eurovision is meant to bring people together, rather than pull them apart: “Some Eurovision fans are gay. Get over it!” At least our audience got the message: The discussion and subsequent public viewing turned out to be a celebration of European values of tolerance and openness. Singer and song preferences might have varied among the audience, but in discussing Eurovision and later viewing it, the event brought a new and exciting audience together for a unique occasion.

12828369_1156453101062348_2310288521118064230_oFrauke Ohler is an intern at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels.