Respected, and now permitted

Foreground | The organisers of the Eurovision Song Contest have changed their minds about allowing the Saami to wave their flag during Europe’s campiest hour

Not a red flag, apparently (Photo: Silje Bergum Kinsten/

Kevin McGwin

You can say what you want about the Eurovision Song Contest, an unapologetically kitschy pan-European talent show taking place this year in Stockholm on May 14. But, with over 200 million viewers around the globe, it is hard to deny its usefulness as a promotional platform.

The most obvious beneficiaries of this exposure are participating acts and hosting cities. But the audience is also an irresistible opportunity for those seeking to promote a cause.

Strictly speaking, campaigning of any sort is at odds with the spirit of the contest, though, in practice, it is hard to prevent artists from seeking to a deliver a message of some sort. This is particularly difficult if they have the audience or the spirit of the age behind them.

For example, Concita Wurst, a bearded cross-dresser from Austria, won the 2014 contest with ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’, a song containing references to alternative sexual identities.

Ms Wurst’s participation sharply divided participating countries, but her win gave Eurovision, and the European Broadcasting Union, which organises the event, a progressive look at a time of increasing awareness of gender-identity issues. (It could also be argued that her participation meshed with the contest’s goal of unifying Europeans of all stripe.)

But while Eurovision’s bosses appear to be comfortable with matters relating to sexual identity, it seems to have more trouble with national identity. Flag-waving is highly encouraged, but the rules make it clear that only the national flags of participating countries are allowed. (In the spirit of inclusion, the EU flag, the flags of any UN member state and rainbow-coloured Unity Flag, a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement, are also explicitly permitted.)

Until last week, though, those regulations excluded sub-national flags, for fear of fracturing, rather than unifying, Europe. Europeans with strong regional identities argued, on the other hand, that the rule did more to push them aside than anything else.

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This year, the ban was providing especially irksome to the Welsh, who will send a singer to represent the UK, and the Saami, given that the Norwegian contestant, Agnete, is an ethnic Saami. (See her performance from the national qualifying show below.)

The prohibition against non-state flags, Jon Ola Sand, an EBU executive responsible for organising Eurovision, told NRK, a Norwegian broadcaster, was in keeping with the contest’s aim to remain non-political, but, on May 6, new rules were issued after the ban received continued coverage in the British and Norwegian press.

The audience and performers are now permitted to wave the sub-national flags of participants, “provided they respect the non-political nature” of the event, the new states. This will come as a relief to Saami representatives, who told Norwegian media they had been prepared to smuggle the flag in.

Speaking with NRK about the ban prior to its change, Mr Sand made it clear, however, that the EBU would, in all likelihood, have turned a blind eye to their act of civil disobedience, given that the flag was a “respected and approved” as a symbol of the Saami and was not associated with any controversy.

The rule, Mr Sand told NRK “was more a matter of encouraging people not to use the Eurovision Song Contest as a political platform”. This is an avenue the EBU appears to have closed off by allowing, rather than banning, certain flags.

Bookmakers have given Agnete 100:1 odds of winning, though it is suggested that new voting rules in place this year could turn out in her favour. Regardless of how she fares, the new flag rules have increased the chances of seeing a Saami flag to nearly 1:1.

Foreground articles offer a preview of events related to the Arctic that will be taking place in coming week.

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