By Diane Cooke
Many European countries, as well as most members of the transatlantic NATO military alliance, have done away with compulsory military service. Of the 28 NATO countries, 23 have full-time professional armies, and 21 of the 27 European Union nations have abolished the draft.
Sweden abolished the draft in 2010, but has now reintroduced it. The country has struggled to fill army ranks on a voluntary basis, citing increased Russian military activity in the Baltics as one of the reasons for the policy U-turn.
In 2010, Sweden’s centre-right government of the time abolished the draft after more than 100 years, arguing that targeted recruitment would increase the quality of a military that had shrunk by more than 90% since the end of the cold war.
But with unemployment rates having returned to pre-2008 levels, the country has been struggling to meet its target of 4,000 new recruits per annum. It means that about 100,000 male and female teenagers born between 1999 and 2000 were asked to complete questionnaires for recruitment.
Of the targeted age group, 13,000 have been called to take part in an enrolment process – of which about 4,000 a year are selected for basic military training in 2018 and 2019.
At 26 months, the longest required military service in Europe is on the island of Cyprus. Denmark's conscription seems by contrast to be impractically short, at just four months. However, conscription there is only employed if there is a shortage of volunteer recruits.
As the EU is defined as an economic free-trade area with a single market (that is to say that it is primarily an economic union), it does not have any EU army. Member States have their own armies which serve in case of an attack against a nation.
Laws concerning military conscription are then regulated by the national law-making bodies. Military service is mandatory in Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Lithuania. In the majority of cases, it is compulsory for all male adult citizens, while women have the choice of enrolling into the military service. They can choose between military or civilian service.
Germany considered in 2016 to have conscription returned in case of national emergency, as provided by the constitution. In 2013, Austria held a referendum which revealed that Austrians, with around 60% of the voters, were in favour of retaining compulsory military service.
It has not been that long since the draft was the norm in Europe. During the Cold War and into the 1990s, compulsory military service existed in nearly every European country. Even after the constant threat of the Cold War subsided, several European states did immediately move to strike conscription. France, for example, only got rid of it in 2001. In Italy and the Netherlands, the draft has been put on hold.
Other European countries face the same dilemma as Sweden: how to recruit soldiers when extremely few young people have had any interaction with the military. Teenagers decide they want to become doctors—or even bankers—based on their experience with medicine or banking, but the military? Past generations’ draft served not only to train reserves but to open young men’s eyes to the military as a career choice. In short, Europe is once again focusing on territorial defence.