The people of Switzerland are preparing to vote in one of their binding referendums, on whether to continue obligatory military service. The Swiss are an exception in Europe in several ways, not only because they still have conscription. Their country is militarily neutral; their army is relatively quite big; and they haven’t fought an external enemy for 200 years.
They spend six percent of their national budget on it; they have 150,000 men and women under arms – of their own choice, that’s voluntary; and the armed forces are the size of Austria’s, Belgium’s, Norway’s Finland’s and Sweden’ combined.
But there’s a battle on over the law that says men 18-34 all have to serve. Still, according to a recent poll, some two thirds of Swiss surveyed wanted to keep it this way, and roughly one third to scrap it. President Ueli Maurer, who is also minister of defence, offers some supporting arguments.
He said making it all voluntary would be more expensive and less competent. “It would certainly not guarantee our security, because we wouldn’t know how many volunteers would apply for military service. We need the fulfilment of this to be obligatory.”
Only a small handful of today’s European Union member states, plus Switzerland and Norway still require their citizens to serve. On the contrary, most have done away with it: Britain in 1960, France in 1997, Germany in 2011, for instance. The Swiss vote on whether to do this is this Sunday.
The pacifist group GSOA first organised one of these Swiss direct democracy referendums to lose the army altogether, in 1989. It failed. Then a vote to replace it with a peace corps was overwhelmingly defeated shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. GSOA insists the system abuses the principle of equality – in terms of disrupted lives.
The group’s Josef Lang added: “If traditions are outdated and costly, abolish them.”
Multinational firms are not happy to see local staff leaving inconveniently. On the other hand, the armed forces stress what a character-building and discipline experience service provides. And former officers now in high finance and insurance and so on say the military is better preparation for competition than any modern business school.