By Emma Mitchell •
Updated: 11 Nov 2023 • 12:19
Comeback for conscription? Credit: Image by nikitabuida on Freepik
With a war in Ukraine, the potential for more Middle Eastern countries to become embroiled in the latest Israel-Palestine fighting, a potential reigniting of conflict in Kosovo and an ever-growing threat from Russia and China, it looks like a European rethink on military conscription may be on the cards.
Since the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and a shift to the liberal centre ground in European politics, many countries abandoned military conscription as an unnecessary and expensive measure. Out of the 29 European countries that are members of NATO, including Turkey, only six have kept up compulsory military service since 1993.
Europe’s focus shifted away from defence in general, with the EU’s combined spending on defence between 1999 and 2021 increasing by only 20 per cent, in comparison to a 66 per cent increase by the US, a jaw-dropping 292 per cent increase by Russia and a truly staggering 592 per cent increase by China. Given those comparisons, it looks like the EU has taken its eye off the ball and become somewhat complacent that the long-term situation of peace and stability was rather more permanent than it’s proved to be.
Looking at the countries with military conscription, one notable thing that stands out is their proximity to Russia. Finland, which of course suffered an invasion by Russia during the 1939 Winter War, has one of the highest rates of conscription in the world. Every year, around 27,000 conscripts are trained with 80 per cent of Finnish male citizens completing the service which can range between nine months and a year for unarmed service and six, nine months or a year for armed service. Penalties for evading military service in Finland are harsh with a penalty of 173 days in prison with no parole, minus any served days.
Other Russian neighbours, Ukraine and Lithuania, reinstated compulsory military service after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In the Ukraine, military service is compulsory for men aged 18 to 26 and in Lithuania for men aged 18 to 25. Latvia is reinstating compulsory military service from 2024 with all men aged 18 to 27 being required to undergo 11 months of service and in Estonia there’s compulsory military or governmental service for men aged between 18-27 for eight to 11 months.
In the Nordic area, Norway brought back conscription in 2016 with all 18-year-olds in Norway of both genders having to present themselves for military service. Out of 60,000 candidates annually around 9,000 are currently chosen for 19 months of service. Sweden started partial conscription in 2018 for both genders with around 4,000 young people called up annually. In early 2023 the Swedish government announced it is taking steps to reintroduce conscription of civilians for its emergency services in order to shore up its defence capabilities against Russia.
Other European countries with conscription include Switzerland, where every male has to serve at least 245 days in the armed forces, Greece (12 months for men between 19 and 45), Austria (six months for men over the age of 18) and Denmark where every male over the age of 18 is subject to being called upon on the basis of a draw. Since 2012 the number of conscripts annually in Demark is 4,200 but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government have been talking about increasing the number to 15,000 annually.
Germany suspended military service in 2011, but it can be reintroduced if the Bundestag determines there is a need for defence. Defence Minister, Boris Pistorius, has led increasing calls to introduce compulsory military service again, saying “Abolishing it was a mistake and could demonstrate the importance of these institutions for the functioning of our society.”
The Bundestag’s commissioner for the army, Eva Högl, recently suggested that a mandatory year of service in military or civilian institutions should be discussed.
In Romania, Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca, spoke out in favour of conscription early this year. Last year the Romanian Defence Ministry backed a draft bill proposing that all military-aged Romanians living abroad should report for military service within 15 days in the event of a general mobilization.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron introduced the Universal National Service in 2019, which enables young people to volunteer for a month and serve their country. The French government is now considering making this compulsory for all French nationals aged 15-17.
Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, has opined on compulsory military service several times, believing that “a year of teaching the rules, good manners and duties would make good citizens.”
The UK ended conscription in 1960 and there has been no official discussion on reintroduction, although in March 2023 then Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, expressed admiration for Finland and Sweden’s framework saying “So I definitely think we’re all envious of how they use their reserves. And, you know, I would love to have a model like that.”
Portugal has voluntary service for 18-30-year-olds who wish to participate and technically conscription is possible if there aren’t sufficient volunteers, however, there has been no discussion in the country on changing that position.
Spain abolished conscription in 2001, retaining the right to mobilise citizens aged between 19-25 years in the event of a national emergency. However, like the UK and Portugal, does not appear to be considering any reinstating of conscription.
Many people, especially in generations who have grown up without any close experience of war in their countries, have an almost visceral reaction to the concept of making military service mandatory for young people.
The devil’s advocate argument is that conscription makes much sense in the current geo-political climate. With the EU’s spending on defence at a historic low and many European country’s militaries having shrunk and become increasingly specialised over the decades since the Cold War, many military experts believe that the EU isn’t in a position to defend itself well in the face of aggression such as Ukraine is experiencing.
Israel is widely acknowledged to have a formidable military force and certainly part of the reason for this is that military service is compulsory for all Israelis, with the exception of Israeli Muslims and Christians, for a period of two years and eight months. Military conscription simply increases the pool of available service men and women at any given time and, over the long term, increases the percentage of civilians who have had military training which pays off in situations where the country finds itself in a war situation.
Perhaps one of the other big arguments in favour of conscription, other than the obvious military defence aspects, is that it may be a way to tackle youth unemployment and anti-social behaviour. Europeans who have been through compulsory military service often mention that routine, discipline and teamwork are a good foundation for young people, ingraining habits such as hard work, respect for authority, confidence and self-discipline.
Youth unemployment is a big problem, particularly in Spain. In September 2023 the youth unemployment rate in the EU was 14.2 per cent. Germany has the lowest rates of youth unemployment at 5.8 per cent, but Spain with 27.8 per cent, holds the dubious title of country with the worst rates of youth unemployment in Europe.
It isn’t just Spain with a youth unemployment problem, in the US the rates of unemployment amongst young people currently run at 8.9 per cent against a general unemployment rate of 3.9 per cent. In the UK the situation is somewhat worse with a youth unemployment rate of 12.5 per cent against the general unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent. In that light, a compulsory spell of military service can look like an appealing possible solution to young people with no job and too much time on their hands.
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Emma landed in journalism after nearly 30 years as an executive in the Internet industry. She lives in Bédar and her interests include raising one eyebrow, reckless thinking and talking to people randomly. If you have a great human interest story you can contact her on email@example.com
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