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Civic vs Ethnic Nationalism And Hosting Eurovision For The First Time Written by on February 12, 2018 | 3 Comments

John Egan takes a close look at the challenges that face a first-time host of the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s Portuguese broadcaster RTP’s turn this year, but what lessons can be learned from past debutants, and how can nationalism be portrayed on the Eurovision stage?

For the tenth time over the last two decades, the Eurovision Song Contest in 2018 will have a first-time host. Our Portuguese friends have already done a great deal of work in preparation for Lisbon: all indications are that RTP has put together a highly skilled team.

The contrast with 2017 is rather stark. We quickly had our theme (‘All Aboard’), hosts, and venues sorted; and there’s no real scuttlebutt or rumbling about things going awry. Ticketing has been something of palaver, arguably because it seems everyone who’s ever considered attending the Song Contest has aimed for Lisbon 2018: high demand means a lot of people have been disappointed. From the outside looking in, preparations are going well.

The Swan Is Graceful On The Surface

Sometimes, however, the greater pressures on first time Eurovision hosts are internal rather external.

This is a chance to showcase the host city and country and its people to a global television audience. Eight hours of live broadcasts will focus primarily on the competing entries but will also offer a great deal of scope for marketing. An early decision to choose a theme that relates to a widely known epoch of Portuguese history that, in a literal sense, put Portugal and Portuguese all over the world map, is not surprising. But there are multiple ways that RTP can employ ‘All Aboard’.

Various members of ESC Insight writers have already presented their own words on RTPs choices. Style maven Lisa-Jane Lewis has already offered a deft analysis on the choice and presentation of this year’s hosting team as being narrow in terms of notions of gender, while historian Catherine Baker has also given us an excellent analysis of why RTP’s theme for Lisbon 2018 is something of a historical whitewash. This article takes a similarly critical tack with perhaps a somewhat broader brush by looking at the challenges and opportunities when an ethnostate hosts its first Eurovision.

We would like to highlight an approach that would leverage an opportunity to reframe what it means to be Portuguese-and, by extension, European-in the 21st century.

The Choice Of Nationalism

Nationalism, as a concept, is rather controversial. To some, nationalism is about reclaiming pride, assert uniqueness, or articulating a sense of self: to others, nationalism represents extremism, racism, and the worst of humanity. In discussing nationalism here we are focusing on the idea of an unique people – a nation – that is defined by shared values, history, experiences or a combination of all three. Benedict Anderson referred to nations as “imagined communities”, something that exists both between and within individuals. Nationalism is shared and personal.

There is a plethora of forms of nationalism, but in the context of the Eurovision, ethnic nationalism and civic nationalism are two that are particularly relevant.

Ethnic nationalism is the idea of a nation – and often, by extension, a state – defined around a common ethnicity or lineage and a shared territory. This is not a modern concept: among the ancient Greeks, Herodotus promoted an ideal of citizenship of a city-state based on shared kinship (blood relations), as well as shared language and customs. In other words, under ethnic nationalism you are born into the nation, your blood is, literally, from the nation.

If that sounds impossibly tidy, it is. Long before the invention of the combustion engine people moved around – a lot. When they moved they, as my beloved grandmother would delicately say, intermingled. Sometimes someone passing through stuck around; other times someone went on a journey and never came home. In both scenarios someone from another nation partnered with someone local, producing children who were not of a single lineage. Long before we had motorways or airports we had intermingling. In the modern age we have even more. When discussing ethnic nationalism we are not discussing – or endorsing – concepts like ethnic purity. It does not exist. It is also not worth celebrating.

An alternative to the idea of ethnic nationalism is civic nationalism. Civic nationalism is defined by the values or principles of a nation-though a physical territory is also affiliated with civic nationalisms. The migrant societies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States are examples of ostensive civic nationalism (the denigration of indigenous communities is also a shared element of these, alas). Their espoused civic nationalism, frequently embedded in a discourse around diversity, does not operate in the same way for everyone. There are still elites; there are still marginalised communities. In other words, civic nationalism is also untidy.

In Europe, as the British, French, Belgian, Italian and Portuguese empires began to crumble, some from previously distant colonies moved to Europe. Today’s United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Italy and Portugal are culturally, linguistically and ethnically diverse. With the exception of the UK, these are all ethno-states that have become more diverse: the UK was fashioned as the (unequal) union of different nations-though in matters of policy, English culture predominated. In reality, none of these European countries were ever monocultural or monolingual: there has always been a great deal of linguistic diversity in each of these states. More untidiness.

Most recently, from 1980s onwards, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union transformed these large political empires into a collection of numerous ethnostates (states framed around an ethnic nationalism), though in reality none of these were ethnically homogenous either.

Another important recent (in historical terms) development was the idea of the supranational state. The European Union is a level of governance above that of its individual member nations. In something of a paradox, several former Yugoslav or Soviet member states have either acceded to EU membership or have applied to do so. To accede requires a re-orientation of their domestic legal frameworks towards the EU’s ideas of EU citizenship, which is very much a civic nationalism.

Let’s take a look at Portugal’s history as it relates to ethnic and civic nationalism.

Senhors É Senhoras Do Mar

It is not surprising that RTP has chosen to integrate a maritime theme into hosting. Having led one of the world’s great empires it is in the country’s cultural DNA. Given that the national epic poem of Portugal is based on the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India, it is clear that Portugal’s past global exploits are a particular point of pride. Their former empire is also part of the Portuguese narrative of ethnic nationalism – something that is not unique to Portugal (or Europe, for that matter).

Sara Tavares at Festival da Cancão 1994 (Source: YouTube/RTP)

Out of a population of 10 million living in Portugal today around half a million (roughly 5%) were born in a former Portuguese colony, mostly in Africa. This has been reflected on the Eurovision stage. Artists like Sara Tavares (1994; ‘Chamar é musica’) Tó Cruz (1995; ‘Baunilha e chocolate’), MTM (2001; ‘Só sei ser feliz assim’), and Homens da Luta (2011; ‘A luta é alegria’) each reflected the important cultural contribution from these communities to modern day Portugal. Prior to ‘Amar Pelos Dois‘, Portugal’s most successful Eurovision entry was a celebration of this diversity: Lucia Moniz’s 1996 entry ‘O Meu Coração Não Tem Cor – My Heart Knows No Colour’.

Lúcia Moniz at Festival da Cancão 1996 (Source: YouTube/RTP)

What initially was a system of disseminating European culture and values around the world whilst exploiting resources and commodities, eventually became something different. The main currency of exchange among the lusophone (Portuguese speaking) countries today is culture through a shared language – music, in particular.

All Aboard

The suggestion is that RTP use ‘All Aboard’ to shift from a discourse of ethnic nationalism to one of civic nationalism.

This is already reflected in its membership in the European Union and Comunidad dos Paises de Lingua Portuguesa. It just needs to be more obvious and purposive.

There are two recent examples of how hosts can celebrate ethnic and civic nationalism at the same time: Oslo 2010 and Vienna 2015.

Both Norway and Austria are presumed to be monocultural ethnostates by some. In reality, each host city includes a broad a range of ethnicities. Both had hosting teams that reflected this ethnic diversity. Oslo’s interval act featured Norwegian hip hop act Madcon. Vienna went a step farther by choosing Building Bridges as their theme, reflecting both Vienna’s history as a crossroads between central and western Europe and Austria’s modern day multiculturalism.

Here are some more concrete suggestions for how the 2018 production team could effectively leverage both ethnic and civic nationalism. First, include the Portuguese diaspora: One of the three hosts, Daniela Ruah, is from the Portuguese diaspora. So too, by the way, are the current title holders: the Sobrals lived in the US for several years before returning to Portugal. Excellent start.

Second, feature the global Lusosphere: the interval acts for all three broadcasts are a chance to showcase Portuguese culture and music’s global reach. An emphasis on how the former colonies have enriched their culture would be great. Look at Birmingham 1998’s interval act for inspiration.

The interval act in Brum (Source: YouTube/escbelgium4)

Great Expectations

Lisbon should feature its uniqueness and its diversity, in the context of today’s Europe. Doing so makes the case for civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism co-existing in a productive way.

Lisbon is great city. It is easily accessible within a couple of hours’ flight from many other European capitals. It is lovely and warm in the spring. It’s relatively affordable. If you have not yet acquired any tickets for the live broadcasts, consider coming to Lisbon anyways. There will be excellent public spaces to view all the broadcasts, along with other events and activities.

Whatever RTP decides, Lisbon 2018 promises to be a cracker of a Eurovision.

Further Reading

Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections On The Origins And Spread Of Nationalism. London: Verso Books.

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3 responses to “Civic vs Ethnic Nationalism And Hosting Eurovision For The First Time”

  1. 4porcelli says:

    Really curious how this will turn out. On the one hand, over the past 20 years, Lisbon has transformed itself from a monolingual somewhat traditional sociaty to one of Europe’s most vibrant cities over the last 20 years (with last year’s winning song leaning more towards the former, apart from the fact that he was a clever casting starlet. On the other hand I have an otherwise dear Portugal-born friend in my home country who can only be described as rabidly nationalistic, which is unusual for gay guys, especially those who basically know the old country from visiting their grandparents after coming here at age 5. Here’s hoping the modern cosmopolitan side will win out!

  2. Keley Ann says:

    Any reason the Spanish and Dutch empires (which were far more significant than the Belgian or Italian ones) didn’t get a mention? A lot of Italy’s multiculturalism is more due to its physical proximity to Africa.

  3. John Egan says:

    Thanks for your comments! I didn’t include the Dutch because their language hasn’t retained a high profile in most of its former colonies: with the exception of Suriname, other languages remain dominant. Why not Spain? Good point!

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