May 24th 1956: First Eurovision

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The original Eurovision logo

 

On this day in 1956, the first Eurovision Song Contest (then known as the Eurovision Grand Prix) was held in Lugano, Switzerland. The idea for the event came about in a 1955 meeting of the European Broadcasting Union in Monaco, after they were inspired by the Sanremo Music Festival in Italy. The first ever Eurovision broadcast lasted for one almost two-hour show on May 24th, primarily broadcast over radio. The event saw seven European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland) submit two songs each. The winner was picked by a jury panel made up of representatives from the participating countries who voted for their favourite song in secret.

 

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1956 winner Lys Assia of Switzerland

 

In 1956, the prize went to Switzerland’s own Lys Assia with the song ‘Refrain’. The tradition of the Eurovision song contest continues annually to this day, though the format is very different to how it was in 1956 – most notably the increased number of participant countries (37 took part this year) and the fact that each country only enter one song each. The 2014 Eurovision contest was won by Austria’s Conchita Wurst for the song ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’.

 

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2014 winner Conchita Wurst of Austria

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March 5th 1946: ‘Iron Curtain’ speech

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Churchill making the speech in Missouri

 

On this day in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, Missouri. The term had been used prior to 1946, but this was the most public use of it. In the ‘Sinews of Peace’ address, Churchill used the term ‘iron curtain’ to reference a Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. At the time, the West still saw the Soviet Union as an ally after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but Churchill’s speech heralded the onset of the Cold War tensions between the capitalist West and communist Russia. As the Cold War took hold, the phrase became popular as a reference to repressive Communist domination of Europe which hid Soviet actions and set a clear divide in Europe.

 

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Cartoon showing the Soviet iron curtain

 

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent”

 

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Churchill and Harry Truman

 

This speech can reasonably be argued to be the beginning of the Cold War which defined the European political landscape for the remainder of the century. There had been mounting criticisms of the communists prior to this, but Churchill’s speech was one of the first truly adversarial public speeches given by a major world leader targetting the Soviet Union. Churchill’s fiery rhetoric shaped the fear of communists which abounded in the Western bloc. People were convinced that there were communists in their midst, trying to create another iron curtain across their country. This fuelled the virulent anticommunism of America in the 1950s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R – WI.). McCarthy and his peers sought to drive all communist influence out of the United States, often sacrificing the pluralist principles that had traditionally been a bedrock of American ideology. The House Un-American Activities Committee conducted a series of high-profile hearings where they questioned people with supposed links to communism. The discovery of Soviet spies such as Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs only served to intensify fears. The ‘Cold War’ that Churchill helped set into motion had its ‘hot’ moments too. The Korean and Vietnam Wars were certainly ideologically driven and whilst not fought between the United States and Soviet Union directly, were still ‘proxy-wars’. The battle of the ideologies was also played out in other countries, where each side would try to prop up a leader who was friendly to their cause, often at the expense of democracy and civil liberties for the local people. This tense battle between two nuclear powers, who knew direct war meant unprecedented destruction, continued until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. There are even those who claim that the Cold War continues today, especially with the current tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Some see Russia’s military action there as Russia trying to reassert its communist-era domination of Eastern Europe. Therefore, Churchill’s iron curtain speech was a momentous symbolic event and paved the way for the Cold War, the influence of which is still felt today.

February 7th 1992: Maastricht Treaty signed

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The signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992

On this day in 1992 the European Union was brought into being by the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. It was signed by the twelve members of the European Community – a precursor to the EU. The treaty was named for the city in the Netherlands where it was drafted and signed. Maastricht became effective on November 1st 1993, and on that day the EU was formally established. It also provided for common security and foreign policy and gave the people of the signatory states European citizenship. Most importantly, Maastricht provided a blueprint for the later monetary union seen in the establishment of the common currency: the Euro.

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Euro banknotes

Whilst the signing occurred without event, the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty was more contentious. The Danish failed to ratify it, but subsequent amendments made it more fit for the Danish people and thus it was ratified. The French referendum only narrowly voted for ratification. The United Kingdom also struggled, with opponents to the treaty on both sides; Prime Minister John Major narrowly won a vote of no confidence he called to challenge the rebels.

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The flag of the European Union

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how the contemporary controversy of the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty would foreshadow the continued contention over the role of the EU. Many countries have begun to object to what they see as increasing encroachment on national sovereignty as Brussels claims authority over more and more areas of policy. For example, the European Court of Human Rights can strike down the rulings of national courts. The economic struggles of the Euro have also questioned the validity of a common currency system. I am not able to expound on the attitudes to the EU in other European countries (of that I am woefully ignorant) but as a Brit I can see what is happening over here. The Conservative Party is faced with a growing challenge on its right – something it has never had to cope with before. Eurosceptic MPs in their own party have pushed for a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership and they have watched with fear as the anti-Europe UK Independence Party steadily rises in the polls. Thus the Tories have promised to call a referendum should they be re-elected in the 2015. I personally favour continued membership of Europe and worry about the result of this referendum. It is often seen with referendums that only the people with extreme opinions on the matter come to vote. Many are apathetic about the EU, and so I can see the anti-Europe voters disproportionately dominating the polls. We have already seen this recently with the referendum on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote, and only those who fervently believed in keeping First Past the Post attended. The future of the EU looks troubled, but hopefully they will continue to use the communitarian spirit which gave us Maastricht to face these challenges head on.