This week, Rotterdam is “the beating heart of Europe”: the Dutch city is the proud host of the Eurovision Song Contest 2021. The logo of the event has Rotterdam in the centre of a stylised world map, connected with the capitals of the participating countries by stripes in the colours of their national flags.
The city has every reason to feel like the centre of the world. With hundreds of millions of people viewing, the show is the biggest live music event on earth. And after last year’s performance had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, this time Rotterdam wants to give it its all, including a limited local audience of 3,500 fans in the Ahoy arena – thanks to an exceptional permission from the Dutch government, which declared the show a ‘fieldlab event’ to test safe live performances during the pandemic.
It’s quite a challenge to carry through the show under these conditions: Duncan Laurence, winner from 2019, who brought the contest to the Netherlands, has tested positive for Covid-19 and had to cancel his planned live performance in the grand final on Saturday, just like Iceland’s entrant Dadi og Gagnamagnid, one of the favourites to take the title.
Escape, be happy, and forget about corona
So why it is so important to have the show at all? The answer was given by Björn Ulvaeus from the Swedish band Abba, Eurovision winner of 1974: the song contest “allows you to escape and be happy – even forget about the coronavirus for a little while,” he said in a video message for last year’s virtual event.
A fieldlab event for Europe
Ulvaeus called the show “disarmingly European”. And really, on closer inspection, the contest seems like a fieldlab event for Europe.
Older than the European Union – the first contest was held in 1956, two years before the European Economic Community, predecessor of the EU, was created – the Eurovision Song Contest clearly delivers on some of the priorities formulated by the current European Commission.
Take, for example, the goal of ‘promoting our European way of life’ – it’s hard to imagine a better ambassador for Europe than the song contest. It has won so many hearts in other parts of the globe that even a country as far away as Australia desperately wanted to become part of the European family and has been allowed to participate in the competition since 2015 (though this week the song from Down Under failed in the semi-finals for the first time).
Or take the European Green Deal, the EU’s flagship project. Rotterdam has set the goal “to design the most environmentally conscious Eurovision to date”, symbolised by a four metre high replica of the contest’s trophy, a microphone, made of plastic materials collected from the city’s port, to tell a story of recycling and clean water.
Or, finally, take the ‘new push for European democracy’ that the Commission wants to give. The song contest has constantly adapted its voting system and today gives viewers at home a direct say: together with a professional jury, televotes from all countries decide the winner. This concept with a good dose of direct democracy seems to work: even if patterns of ‘bloc voting’ have been observed, “recent results show it is possible for any country to win Eurovision”, as an analysis by Maynooth University in Ireland found out.
“Europe could learn a whole lot from Eurovision”
The song contest, a better Europe? At least a “policy laboratory”, writes André Wilkens, director of the European Cultural Foundation: “Europe could learn a whole lot from Eurovision.” And a study from the University of Vienna finds that the contest, initially “a product of the Cold War”, has become “a forum in which concepts of European values have been defined and challenged”. Recent years saw the celebration of diversity, as marked by the victory of Austria’s bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst in 2014.
And all of this national branding and cultural diplomacy is happening in cities, the hotspots of societal change. “Rotterdam is a vibrant city with a special history and energy,” said Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb in his welcome message. “It is a home to people from all over the world and a place where unlimited ambitions become reality.”
This year’s Eurovision Song Contest should become “an unforgettable event” that gives “a hopeful perspective”, Aboutaleb said. “Because sharing, celebrating and enjoying our different cultures together is a necessity of life.”
Or, as the great European philosopher Voltaire might have said: “If the Eurovision Song Contest did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.”