Nation Branding or Building a European Identity at the Eurovision Song Contest?


Although the ESC 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.

Jubelnde Menschenmenge schwenkt Europafahnen und Nationalflaggen während des Eurovision Song Contest 2023 in Liverpool

I was naïve, to use a French loanword. In February this year, as Germany selected its entry for the 2024 Eurovision Song Contest that will take place in Malmö, Sweden, I placed my hopes on the singer Marie Reim and her song “Naiv”. A catchy pop Schlager, it had all the elements of what we might call the typical Eurovision song: with a melodramatic theme about attraction and deception in love, you could imagine yourself with friends in a club singing along to it with exaggerated dance moves. For her performance, Marie Reim wore a crystals-bedecked red-lace semi-transparent dress and was accompanied by sexy male dancers: the performance had that camp bling that trademarks Eurovision. And she sang in German: only one of the other eight songs in the national selection was in German, and none of them were a typically German pop schlager.

I am old school Eurovision in that I still love hearing songs in the official languages of the countries that they represent. Linguistic diversity is what has made Eurovision unique compared to other televised song contests: united in diversity, as the slogan of the European Union goes. However, since 1999, the rules of Eurovision have no longer stipulated that songs need to be in the official languages of their countries. Which means that, since then, most entries in the contest have been in English: there have only been a few entries from Germany with German-language lyrics, and none since 2007. Germany even won the 2010 Eurovision with the song “Satellite” sung by Lena. That’s of the few of Germany’s entries since the turn of the twenty-first century that have become earworms — which is a loan translation from the German Ohrwurm, actually. The absence of the German language has made Eurovision less European: because linguistic diversity not only differentiates national identities, but it also defines the cultural wealth of an integrated Europe.

How national and European identities relate to each other in Eurovision is full of contradictions. While one of Europe’s longest running and most popular cultural events has become less European because of the dominance of the English language (although there will be a bit more linguistic diversity in this year’s Eurovision than last year), there are a lot of other things about Eurovision that seem contradictory and that I find often need to be explained to non-Europeans who are not familiar with this rough diamond of Europe’s cultural heritage. Like the fact that Eurovision is so often mocked yet is so hugely popular. We are united by Eurotrash, or, perhaps, Eurotreasure… Or that politics has always been reflected in the contest, even though the contest’s organisers always insist that the contest is non-political… That Australia and Israel are in Eurovision, even though they are not in Europe… And that the contest is made up of entries that represent countries (and often not in the official languages of these countries), while it is a force of European cultural integration: there is no other cultural event that unites Europeans like Eurovision, in recent years attracting around 160 million viewers in recent years… Oh, and you can barrack for your own country’s entry, but not vote for it. Which makes you think about other Europeans and what connects you with them.

This non-political event is Europe’s biggest election.

And probably the greatest contradiction of them all: this non-political event is Europe’s biggest election. Eurovision has since its beginning in 1956 been organised by the European Broadcasting Union, an association of national public broadcasting organisations from Europe and the Mediterranean rim that is independent of any other European organisation. Due to the geographical spread of the European Broadcasting Union’s members and the organisation’s non-political membership criteria, the annually staged Eurovision has offered the most number of people in the most countries in Europe the most opportunities to vote in a common event since public televoting was introduced in the contest in the late 1990s (around the same time when the language rule was abrogated). Compare that to the elections for the European Parliament, which only occur every five years and only in European Union member states: this year, those elections will include 27 countries, whereas Eurovision will include 37. In the elections for the European Parliament, citizens only vote for candidates from their own country, but in Eurovision they can only vote for candidates from other countries. And Europeans like to folklorically analyse the results of Europe’s biggest election, searching for alliances and tensions in a global context of diasporic, post-colonial, regional, religious and sexual identities that connect people across countries. This year, one of the most highly favoured entries, “Rim Tim Tagi Dim”, sung by Baby Lasagna from Croatia, is about people who have had to emigrate, especially Croatians who have for economic reasons emigrated to other, wealthier parts of the European Union since Croatia joined it in 2013. These Croatians might just vote for Baby Lasagna from countries like Germany and Sweden, just before they vote for German and Swedish candidates in the European Parliament elections.

The EBU has continued to present Eurovision as a non-political event so that international conflicts do not undermine the show of European unity that should instead be underpinned by transnational connections. One of the contest’s rules is that all of the national broadcasting organisations participating in the contest must broadcast all of the competing entries during the show. That includes those entries from countries with which the country of the national broadcasting organisation might not have diplomatic relations or might be involved in a military or political conflict. Like Greece and Turkey, when they debuted in the contest in the 1970s. Or Armenia and Azerbaijan ever since they were allowed to enter Eurovision from 2006 and 2008. And Russia and Ukraine, since the Russian military aggression against Ukraine that began in 2014. Or when countries in which LGBTIQ rights are suppressed, like Russia, have had to watch a bearded drag queen from Austria take victory in the contest. That was Conchita Wurst, who became famous across Europe with her Eurovision win in 2014 with the song “Rise Like a Phoenix”.

Unlike Conchita Wurst, the overwhelming majority of Eurovision artists have more likely remained national stars rather than become European ones. Even many of the contest’s winners. There has always been the hope that the winner could achieve global commercial success, and of the 1,758 songs that have been submitted to Eurovision from 1956 to 2024, some have gone on to become international hits that are still played all over Europe, like the entries of the megastars Domenico Modugno, ABBA and Céline Dion. But the success of most Eurovision entries has been limited to their hit (which Schlager is a loan translation of) power at home. Still, that Eurovision has had an indelible impact on European popular culture is also heard in the contest’s characteristic phrases that have infiltrated everyday speech across the continent, such as ‘good evening, Europe’, ‘twelve points’ (the maximum points that a country can award an entry on the voting scale of 1 to 8, 10 and 12) or ‘zero points’, with the latter two respectively expressing acclamation or disapproval. The variations of these phrases in French, like nul points or douze points, have also become catchphrases, as French is the other official language of the contest and still used in the hosts’ scripts in the shows, a legacy of the early postwar years when French was still the language of international diplomacy. Eurovision has made us less naïve by teaching us more French words beyond naïve.

Nevertheless, despite its emergence alongside the creation of the foundational organisations of the European Union, Eurovision did not start out as a project of European integration.

So, even though Eurovision entries have mostly had a lasting impact just on their own countries, the contest has managed to change the way Europeans sing and speak. Nevertheless, despite its emergence alongside the creation of the foundational organisations of the European Union, Eurovision did not start out as a project of European integration. The contest was conceived by the European Broadcasting Union in the mid-1950s as a venture in developing Western Europe’s emerging television services through the programme exchange and technical cooperation that was being fostered by the organisation’s Eurovision Network, from which the contest got its name. At a time when national televisions services were just emerging, cooperation was a way to cost-effectively exchange programmes. It was also unexpected that the logo adopted for the Eurovision Network in 1954, a circle of twelve stars, would be the first example of this symbol being used for a European organisation, with the European flag with the circle of twelve golden stars being adopted by the Council of Europe in 1955, and ultimately by the European Economic Community in 1985. It is now the flag of the European Union, the European Economic Community’s successor.

Eurovision is one of the leading examples of a television show that has connected Europeans via a simultaneous, transnational broadcast, especially as the European Broadcasting and other European organisations have made other, often fleeting, attempts to achieve the same in a continent in which television has largely remained a national affair. The European Economic Community even sponsored the contest for a few times in the late 1980s and 1990 as it sought to develop a cultural policy for a European identity, looking to Eurovision as a model. The European Union has still not come up with a cultural event as attractive as the contest. So, Eurovision may not have been conceived as a tool of European integration, but it has become symbolic of it. However, there have been only a few entries in the contest that have been odes to European integration: Italy’s winner from 1990, “Insieme: 1992” sung by Toto Cutugno, is the most prominent example, and look out for the Netherland’s Joost Klein this year singing “Europapa”. That there is no other international song contest in the world matching the longevity or popularity of the Eurovision (and American and Asian versions of Eurovision planned in recent years have not really taken off) demonstrates that there is something peculiarly European about Eurovision that transcends national identifications.

Even though they are both ‘unions’, the European Broadcasting Union’s internationalist aims should thus not be conflated with the European Union’s supranationalist ones. The Eurovision Network’s early success in forging a common market for radio and television programmes was arguably due to the European Broadcasting Union distancing itself from the politics of other Western European organisations, especially those with supranationalist aims. Switzerland, which hosted the first-ever Eurovision and is the location of the European Broadcasting Union’s headquarters, has never applied to join the European Union. And the United Kingdom remains in Eurovision and even hosted it last year on behalf of Ukraine, but it left the European Union in 2020. Hence the European Broadcasting Union’s “non-political” chorus. Indeed, as the members of the European Broadcasting Union themselves typify, television in Europe still remains a very national affair, as does popular music. Even though Eurovision has unified Europeans by creating shared cultural references, it has arguably been more successful in forging national icons and refashioning national identities rather than transnational ones. The patriotism expressed in the barracking for national entries at the Eurovision reflects the resilience of national identities despite — or because of — processes of European integration. So, while the extent to which Eurovision has shaped a European identity is significant but also contradictory, the international contest has also refashioned national identities and made them appear more attractive, modern and persistent through new media, technologies and fashions.

So, while the extent to which Eurovision has shaped a European identity is significant but also contradictory, the international contest has also refashioned national identities

Yet, Eurovision also demonstrates that those national identities have not been pure or unique phenomena, but have rather been refashioned through cultural transfers, as the trajectories of naïveté, Ohrwurm, ‘good evening Europe’, douze points and Baby Lasagna typify. And that of schlager, a style of popular music that developed in the interwar era and had its origins in operettas. The German word for the genre often appears as a loanword in languages across Europe, joining the multilingual musical dictionary alongside chanson and rock and roll, which have also shaped Eurovision. Marie Reim is not representing Germany in Eurovision this year, having been beaten in the national selection by Isaak singing, in English, “Always on the Run”. But, in my naïveté, I do hope that Germany will be represented by a German-language schlager next year. Germans should embrace Schlager and be less naïve in realising its Ohrwurm power to score douze points. And, in its history of embracing contradictions between the national and the European, Eurovision should become more European again by reaffirming linguistic diversity as a Eurotreasure.


Dr. Dean Vuletic is a historian of contemporary Europe who specialises in the Eurovision Song Contest, including as a media commentator and public speaker. He began teaching the world’s first university course on Eurovision at New York University, and he authored the first-ever scholarly book on the history of Eurovision, Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Vienna. He holds a PhD in modern European history from Columbia University, and he currently lectures at the University of Luxembourg.