Eurovision shapes the Continent’s identity

In April, French President Emmanuel Macron described Europe as “a continent-world that thinks about its universality.” Perhaps he would include thinking about singing, that most universal of languages.

On Saturday night, an audience of more than 150 million people – larger than the Super Bowl – is expected to watch performers from 26 countries in the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest. The event, now in its 68th year, will again shape a tighter European identity that honors the singing talent from individual countries, most of them in the European Union.

The “universal” in Eurovision lies in its democratic and inclusive nature. Viewers, along with an expert jury, get to vote on who wins. And the event’s organizer, the European Broadcasting Union, is quite open about its struggles to welcome new countries while keeping the musical competition as free of geopolitics as possible.

This year hasn’t been easy. Israel’s contestant, Eden Golan, was asked to revise her song to avoid an allusion to the Hamas attack last October. But organizers rejected pleas to ban her. As a result, protesters are descending on the Swedish city of Malmö, the site of this year’s contest. (Sweden put Eurovision on the global map in 1974 when ABBA won with “Waterloo.” This year, it may be known for upholding the freedom to protest.)

Eurovision has become a mirror for the values that the EU wants to spread to prevent ethnic-based wars like World War II. For many of the bloc’s newest members, the key value is freedom, especially freedom of expression and assembly. After the former Soviet state of Estonia won the contest in 2001, its then-leader said, “We are no longer knocking at Europe’s door. We are walking through it singing.”

In June, more than 400 million EU citizens will elect a new European Parliament. That contest, even if it does help cement EU values in governance, has so far drawn less interest than the Continent’s annual celebration of original, three-minute pop songs – and the democratic voting behind it. The world’s largest and longest-running live music contest is not just entertainment. It is central to the European project, one universal note of song at a time.

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