Rishi Sunak waded into the row today about political impartiality at the wildly popular Eurovision musical glitz-fest, claiming that President Volodymyr Zelensky should have been allowed to address the contest.

No 10 said the PM believes that the “values and freedoms that President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine are fighting for are not political, they’re fundamental”.

The pushback comes after the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) – an alliance of over 100 broadcasters that oversees the competition – rejected a request from the Ukrainian president to make a video appearance during the final on Saturday in Liverpool, declaring it would interfere with the “non-political nature of the event.”

Critics on Sunak’s side protest that, since Ukraine is unable to host this year’s Eurovision – a contest aiming to celebrate European unity – because it’s under siege, the least the EBU could do is let its president appeal to the global audience of 160 million to continue supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression. 

Those defending the EBU point out that the UK, last year’s runner’s up, is already doing a fair amount to champion Ukraine. 

Indeed, while Liverpool was delighted to step in as the first British host in over 25 years – and receive a £40m boost to the local economy – it has very much assumed the role of “little Kyiv.”

Ukrainian flags adorn the northwestern city’s restaurants and bars, 3,000 tickets have been set aside for Ukrainians who found refuge in Britain and the UK government has allocated £10m of funding to ensure the event showcases Ukrainian culture.

Yet the debate has only served to highlight that the renowned 67-year-old competition is never truly removed from politics. 

The EBU’s own decision to ban Russia from competing for the second year in a row is evidence of that. So too is the fact that Ukraine won Eurovision last year with the highest number of points from the televote in the contest’s history. 

Nor is the Russia-Ukraine war the first time the competition has brought geopolitical tensions to the fore. 

After Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, a Georgian pop group was selected to compete in Eurovision with the song “We Don’t Wanna Put In.” The EBU objected, declaring that this thinly veiled criticism of the Russian leader broke the “no political lyrics” rule. But the group refused to change their song, resulting in the Georgian broadcaster GPB withdrawing from the event.

A year later, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict reared its head in the contest when a number of viewers in Azerbaijan who voted for the Armenian entry were reportedly questioned by Azeri police. 

Voting and performances aside, even the TV screening of Eurovision is steeped in politics. 

When Israel became the first country from outside Europe to enter the contest in 1973, many broadcasters in Arab countries would cut to advertisements as soon as Israeli musicians took to the stage. 

In 1978, Jordan’s state broadcaster JRTV took this one step further. As soon as it became apparent that Israel was on course to win the contest, JRTV cut the programme short due to “technical difficulties”. Jordanian media later reported that Belgium, the runner-up, had won instead. More recently, in 2019, the online stream of the Eurovision semi-finals in Israel was hacked to show warnings of a missile strike and images of blasts in the host city, Tel Aviv. The government blamed Hamas.

Ultimately, a contest of nations can never be truly apolitical. It’s worth remembering too that Eurovision formed in 1956 with the specific purpose of promoting post-war cooperation between European states. 

With Russia once again waging a war against Europe, a competition to promote European unity feels more relevant than ever. 

And, as Ukraine fights to defend its national identity, merely competing in the contest is political. It’s an opportunity to display resolve, showcase the country’s cultural contributions and highlight its sovereignty. 

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