All Europeans are equal, but some are more equal than others: Eurovision and the European Union

, by Kristijan Fidanovski

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

All Europeans are equal, but some are more equal than others: Eurovision and the European Union
Conchita Wurst, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, visiting the European Parliament. © European Union 2014 - European Parliament

At first glance, the Eurovision and the European Union are polar opposites. The Eurovision is cool, but unnecessary; the EU is hardly cool, but highly necessary. The Eurovision is a waste of money on cheap music for taxpayers throughout the continent (and, for some reason, for countries such as Australia and this year’s winner Israel). By contrast, the EU has kept the peace on our continent for decades, and yet it remains underfunded and visibly underappreciated.

But despite this stark contrast, the EU also has many – too many – things in common with the Eurovision. The aim of both projects is to bring the continent together. But the reality of both of them – despite their noble premise – is a Europe where some Europeans are simply, to borrow from George Orwell, “more equal” than others.

All languages are equal, but English is more equal than others

In theory, both projects embrace language plurality. In the Eurovision, countries have a choice between singing in English and singing in their own language. In the EU, the language of each member state is by default an official language of the union.

In practice, however, most winning countries in the Eurovision – and most participant countries, including this year – opt to sing in English. Last year, Portugal broke a continuous ten-year streak of wins by English-language songs, which went back all the way to Serbia’s winning entry “Molitva” in 2007. Israel’s win with an English-language entry this year restored the sense that 2007 and 2017 were rare exceptions. More often than not, countries that sing in their own language stand a slimmer chance of winning, regardless of the quality of their songs.

In this year’s Eurovision, English did not only dominate the songs themselves, but it was also the undisputed lingua franca in the vote count. As the 43 countries were presenting their votes, Switzerland was the only one to do so in French, as even France opted for English.

Similarly, in the EU, English, German, and French are elevated from the rest of the official languages as “procedural languages.” In practice, there is even less language equality, as English ends up dominating even the other two “procedural languages” in official statements by the European commissioners.

All countries are equal, but the rich ones are more equal than others

In the Eurovision, 37 of the 43 participating countries compete in the semifinals for a place in the final. The remaining six are granted direct entry into the final, but only one of them has actually earned its safe spot – the winner from the previous year. The other five countries, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, France, and Italy enjoy this privilege every year, regardless of their (usually poor) performance.

In the EU, the United Kingdom is notorious for its opt-out from the Eurozone and the visa-free Schengen area, two of the biggest trademarks of EU membership. What is less known is that there are a total of ten opt-outs in the EU, including three for Denmark, two for Ireland, and one for Poland in areas as diverse as defence, law, and citizenship. The United Kingdom, which is the only state that is privileged both in the EU and in the Eurovision, leads the way with four opt-outs, and was about to receive a fifth one on the freedom of movement for workers had it not voted to leave in 2016.

All countries are equal: they are equally powerless

In the EU, the sheer size of the administrative bodies of the union creates a widespread popular perception that all important decisions are made by a small group of people in Brussels. While this perception is not entirely accurate, and has been greatly exaggerated and abused by populist parties throughout the continent, the excessive bureaucratisation and imperfect transparency of the EU often make ordinary Europeans feel powerless.

The Eurovision creates the exact same perception, which is in this case more justified. In the Eurovision, half of the votes are derived from expert juries in each of the participant countries, while the other half are derived from popular televoting. The undemocratic power of the juries is justified by the need for expert evaluation of the quality of the songs that would cast aside any ulterior factors not pertaining to music that might inform the voting of non-experts, i.e. people’s sympathies for a specific country.

Yet, this is blatantly not the case. This year, the Montenegrin expert jury gave the top points to neighboring Serbia, whose song did very poorly overall. Similarly, the Russian expert jury awarded 12 points to ex-Soviet republic Moldova. Just like the 28 European commissioners, not only are these juries unelected, but they also don’t always do a good job.

What the EU can learn from the Eurovision

Most interestingly, there is one area where the Eurovision is actually more equal than the EU. The expert juries – illegitimate though they may be – exercise equal influence. The 12 points awarded by the German jury carry the same weight as the 12 points awarded by the one in San Marino. While clearly disproportionate to population size, this system is completely in line with the core European idea of full equality.

The distribution of influence in the European Parliament, however, is not equal. Under the model of degressive proportionality, the bigger member states have more seats in the European Parliament than the smaller ones. Awarding all member states the same number of seats would have a host of positive implications from empowering small states to removing the biggest long-term obstacle for Turkey’s membership (of course, presuming that this country will one day meet the membership criteria). Under the current model, even if Turkey does become ready for membership, the biggest member states might want to obstruct the accession of a country whose population size would translate into the second-highest number of seats in the European Parliament.

Moreover, for the optimists among us, the Eurovision provides some encouraging hope that European birds which leave the common nest can also come back. After decades of continuous participation and two wins, Italy left the contest in 1997 and did not participate for two decades before coming back in 2011. So, does Brexit really have to mean Brexit?

Setting Europe’s priorities straight

Does Europe need the Eurovision? Probably not, especially if this is a contest where Israel’s poor excuse for a song could triumph over Italy’s sophisticated social critique and masterful stage appearance.

But does Europe need the European Union? Yes, more than ever, and despite all its imperfections. The best way in which the Eurovision can help the European Union is by reminding people that Europe can really be “united in its diversity,” even if it is for one night and for a cheesy music contest. How great would it be if at least half as many people bothered to vote in European elections?

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