Which European countries are rethinking military service amid war in Ukraine?


“Every Frenchman is a soldier and must defend the nation”, declares the Jourdan law of 1798, pioneering the concept of universal military service.

Nearly two centuries later, French President Jacques Chirac finally scrapped the mass levee, replacing it with “Defence and Citizenship Day”, a day of escape for young people to learn about Republican values ​​once per year.

The end of national service in 1997 was not unanimous in France. For some, it was an affront to history. For others, an admission of the country’s declining importance in world affairs.

But the rest of Europe will follow. Across the continent, military service was on its last legs at the turn of the century.

Policy makers wanted their armies to be made up of professionals only. With no conflict in the Western Balkans for nearly half a century, large armies of hundreds of thousands of reservists looked not only outdated but expensive.

Britain abolished military service in 1963; Belgium did it in 1992. But between 2004 and 2011, much of Europe abolished national service. Only Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Cyprus, Greece, Austria and Switzerland have never abandoned conscription. However, some rules have been relaxed. In 2006, Vienna reduced military service to just six months.

The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 was the first shock that prompted several European governments to rethink military service. Ukraine brought back conscription in 2014, allowing it to build up a vast army of professionals and reservists in its current war with Russia.

In 2015, Lithuania partially reintroduced it (after ending it in 2008) and Norway became the first European country to introduce compulsory military service for women. Two years later, Sweden reimposed the project. France began following its newly reintroduced national service, known as SNU, in 2019.

The Lithuanian Defense Ministry launched a study on full conscription in January this year, ahead of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine the following month. The attack on Vladimir Putin has provoked new thinking.

Latvia was the first to act. At the beginning of July, its Ministry of Defense announced that men between the ages of 18 and 27 will have to complete eleven months of military service. The bill, which must be passed by parliament, is expected to be introduced next year.

“[The] The Latvian population must understand that in order to survive we simply have to increase the share of [the] population that has received military training and is ready to engage in combat. This should reduce the risk of Russia attacking Latvia at will,” Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said.

Other countries could follow. In April, the Dutch Ministry of Defense reportedly launched a study on the introduction of Scandinavian-style conscription, fearing that a quarter of military positions are currently not filled. Poland introduced a new system of “paid voluntary general military service” in March.

In Romania – which rejected the reintroduction of conscription a few years ago – the Ministry of Defense presented a draft law this month which would oblige nationals living abroad to return home within 15 days to conscription in a state of emergency or war.

Not everyone followed suit. António Costa, the Portuguese Prime Minister, has ruled out returning from compulsory military service. Nor are there many debates in Spain, Italy and Belgium. A survey carried out this year by the Belgian publication The Last Hour found that 60% of those polled would not be willing to take up arms and fight for the country.

In Germany, where conscription was suspended in 2011, politicians from all walks of life have suggested it should return. Carsten Linnemann, deputy leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), now an opposition party, said in March that the reintroduction of military service could “do real good” for society. Wolfgang Hellmich, MP for the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), a ruling party, called for an “urgent” debate.

“Some politicians demand a general social year for all men and women, which would mean that military service would be an option,” explained Joachim Krause, professor of political science at the University of Kiel.

“However, in military circles there is no clear line,” he added. “On the one hand, there are the supporters of the project, who argue that Germany needs more troops. On the other hand, there are those who argue that recruited soldiers are no longer capable of handling the complex technologies of modern warfare.

Besides patriotism, national unity and (in countries like France) finding things to do for unemployed young people, the concern is whether Europeans are ready to face new dangers.

Between 1999 and 2021, combined EU defense spending grew by just 20%, according to reports from the European Defense Agency. This compares to an increase of 66% by the United States, 292% by Russia and 592% by China, over the same period.

For countries close to Russia, the threat posed by Moscow is more palpable. Yet across Europe, the military is struggling to find personnel. For example, the Dutch army currently has about 9,000 vacancies, or about a quarter of the total number of positions, according to local media.

However, “what is different today from the Cold War is that countries don’t need everyone to serve; they don’t need massive infantry armies. The problem is how to select them,” said Elisabeth Braw, senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute think tank.

There has been ‘very little, if any, thought in the UK about the impact of the war in Ukraine on ideas of national service, although it should have sparked such debate,’ said historian Sir Hew Strachan. soldier and professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews,

In 2020, Strachan published a report commissioned by the UK Ministry of Defense on the relationship between the military and the general public.

“The press response to my report has been to place today’s national service in the context of post-1945 national service and to conjure up images of reluctant conscripts doing drills under sergeant majors intimidating. That was not what I was proposing in the report,” he told Euronews.

Although it received “more thoughtful reading” in the preparatory work of the UK Integrated Review – a major government study of British foreign and defense policy – ​​even that didn’t really touch on the central theme when it was published l last year, Strachan said.

That theme, he added, “was the need for public engagement and an understanding of national security.”

Almost all of the military services reintroduced in the early 2010s lean towards volunteerism. Most, indeed, aren’t universal in the way they used to be – and there’s some debate over whether they’re “mandatory” or not.

The system reintroduced in 2017 in Sweden was not the same as the one abolished seven years earlier, explains Alma Persson, associate professor at the Swedish University of Linköping.

“The new version is aimed at both men and women, and it’s an attempt to keep the focus on self-motivation and volunteering, even though it is indeed mandatory,” she said. added.

This is the “paradox” of “voluntary duty”, according to Persson. In Sweden, around 4,000 recruits are called up each year, having narrowed a slightly larger pool, most of whom volunteer to serve for a year. But this is a small percentage of the total number of people of draft age.

It’s the same in Norway. Of the tens of thousands called each year to take a competitive test, only a few thousand are accepted for service. According to one estimate, only 15% of people of conscription age are accepted.

Most countries considering the reintroduction of military service follow this “Scandinavian model”.

The new system introduced in Poland in March is also voluntary — and paid. Those who enlist will receive a monthly salary of almost €1,000 and can then join the professional army after a year of full-time training. Thus, recruits do not enter the professional army full-time, nor do they become part-time reservists.

As with modern military service, it falls somewhere in between.


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