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The UK, Ukraine, and the Politics of Eurovision 2023

This May, Liverpool will play host to the Eurovision Song Contest. Few European cities are so indelibly associated with the history of popular music but, for many viewers around the world, memories of the Fab Four and the golden age of British pop will be far from the front of their minds by the time the contest kicks off on 9 May. Minds will instead turn to Ukraine, home of last year’s winners and where – but for Russia’s ongoing war of aggression – this year’s contest would have been held.

A stage backlit with vibrant red lighting. On stage, a group of five musicians perform in the 2022 Eurovision contest.
Kalush Orchesta, the 2022 Eurovision winner representing Ukraine, performs on stage during the 2022 semi-finals. Image from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Eurovision’s journey to Liverpool started, of course, with a surprise UK second-place finish last May, but the contest’s relocation also makes sense for geopolitical reasons. Since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, the UK has been one of the most vocal supporters of Ukraine, with this stance becoming one of the few unifying aspects of British foreign policy to have yet emerged in the post-Brexit era. Hosting Eurovision on Ukraine’s behalf, and packaging the event as one grounded in solidarity with the Ukrainian struggle, underlines this support. More cynically, it also allows the UK to use one of its most diverse and inclusive cities to (re)present itself as one of Europe’s leading bastions of freedom and democracy, despite its increasingly authoritarian government.

All this, of course, makes Eurovision 2023 unavoidably political. Whilst, as Dean Vuletic’s history of the contest emphasises, there are always strong political undercurrents to the event, these are usually kept as subtle as possible. After all, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)’s competition rules stress that Eurovision is "a non-political event" and assign each individual broadcaster the responsibility of ensuring that "the [contest] shall in no case be politicized and/or instrumentalized." This allows the politics of Eurovision to play out under the cover of sequins and glitter, creating the comfortable illusion that – for example – the contest can be held in states with authoritarian and repressive governments (like Russia in 2009 or Israel in 2019) without endorsing the actions of said regimes. In reality, the commitment to maintaining a "non-political" front has allowed Eurovision to be instrumentalized time and time again.

Ukraine’s victory in Turin last year neatly highlighted the limits of the apolitical fantasy from a different angle. The votes from viewers across the continent clearly acted as a rejection of Russian expansionist violence and a gesture of continental solidarity in the name of peace and freedom. Such sentiments were explicit in the UK reaction. Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s immediate response to the results on social media offered not only congratulations to the Ukrainian winners but also assurance that the victory was "a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom."

This will encourage some to embrace the competition as a symbol of resistance but, as we’ve already seen, the contest’s insistence on remaining apolitical limits its capacity to do anything but tacitly endorse the states that host it.

This widespread support has not, of course, led to the EBU sanctioning the contest being held somewhere in Ukraine, much to the frustration of the country’s Culture Secretary Oleksandr Tkachenko. With the UK established as the host nation, the focus quickly turned to how the contest could be made to feel Ukrainian whilst being hosted far way in Northern Europe. Shortly before his departure from office, Johnson argued (following discussions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy) that the event "must celebrate the country and people of Ukraine." How exactly this will happen remains to be seen. The contest logo has been altered to feature the Ukrainian flag, and Ukrainian singer Julia Sanina will be one of the hosts, but the build-up in the UK is making relatively little of the unique circumstances.

The BBC’s official trailer for the event, for example, may include a brief call to "let them hear us in Kyiv," but the overall tone is, if anything, patriotic. "It’s time to show the world how we Eurovision," emphasises The Vivienne (the inaugural winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK) in the voiceover. An ad campaign encouraging fans to watch the contest in UK cinemas, meanwhile, makes no reference to Ukraine (outside its use of the new contest logo) at all. Even the newly announced solidarity singalong plan, in which a flashmob in Liverpool will kickstart what is intended to be a global noon singalong to The Beatles’ classic "With a Little Help from My Friends," feels like it places more emphasis on the UK than on Ukraine.

Solidarity with Ukraine, then, seems unlikely to push the Eurovision party atmosphere into second place in the competition’s priority list this year. No doubt we can still expect the BBC to draw attention to Ukraine’s ongoing plight and its impressive (if relatively short) Eurovision pedigree throughout the contest, but there’s little reason to believe that the political angle of this year’s contest will be forthright enough to risk the ire of the EBU. This doesn’t diminish the capacity of Liverpool 2023 to serve as a symbol – however minor – of continental (and indeed global) support for Ukraine. It may, however, allow the contest to serve an additional political purpose, one that has more to do with British politics and is more in keeping with the subtler politics of competitions past.

After all, Eurovision comes to the UK at a time when the Conservative government continues to try and crack down on legitimate protest (including strike action, some of which may disrupt the Eurovision final) and obsessively demonises asylum seekers. In the last few weeks, government ministers have openly and proudly aligned themselves with far right politicians who oppose multiculturalism and LGBTQ+ (particularly trans) rights, whether on the continent (Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni) or in the United States (Florida governor Ron DeSantis). There’s little doubt that, in the current “culture war” climate, Eurovision’s overtly queer-friendly environment, in particular, feels distinctly at odds with the drift of UK politics.

This will encourage some to embrace the competition as a symbol of resistance but, as we’ve already seen, the contest’s insistence on remaining apolitical limits its capacity to do anything but tacitly endorse the states that host it. Given this context, hosting Eurovision on behalf of Ukraine also serves a convenient smokescreen for a UK that is steadily creeping ever further away from the kinds of tolerant, liberal values it often claims to embody.


Benjamin Bland is currently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Reading, where he has begun a major new project on the relationship between popular music and racialization in twentieth century Britain. He is also completing a debut monograph, based on his earlier research, with the provisional title of The Anti-Fascist Nation? Memory, Race, and Identity in Post-War Britain.


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