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Which European countries are rethinking military service amid Ukraine war?

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By David Hutt
French troops from the 7th Mountain Battalion line up at Amari air base, Estonia, Thursday, March 17, 2022.
French troops from the 7th Mountain Battalion line up at Amari air base, Estonia, Thursday, March 17, 2022.   -   Copyright  Adrien Courant, Etat Major des Armees via AP

“Any Frenchman is a soldier and owes himself to the defence of the nation,” declared the Jourdan Act of 1798, pioneering the concept of universal military service.

Almost two centuries later, French President Jacques Chirac finally did away with the levée en masse, replacing it with “Defence and Citizenship Day”, an away day for youths to learn about Republican values once a year.

The end of national service in 1997 wasn’t universally popular in France. For some, it was an affront to history. For others, an admission of the country’s collapsing importance in world affairs.

But the rest of Europe would follow suit. Across the continent, military service was on its last legs by the turn of the century.

Policymakers wanted their militaries staffed only with professionals. With no conflict west of the Balkans in almost half a century, grand armies of potentially hundreds of thousands of reservists seemed not just outdated but expensive.

Britain had done away with military service in 1963; Belgium did so in 1992. But between 2004 and 2011, a vast swathe of Europe did away with national service. Only Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Cyprus, Greece, Austria and Switzerland have never abandoned conscription. Some rules were relaxed, though. In 2006, Vienna reduced military service down to only six months.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the first shock that prompted several European governments to rethink military service. Ukraine brought back conscription in 2014, which has allowed it to amass a vast army of professionals and reservists in its current war with Russia.

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

AP Photo/Karl Ritter
Soldiers from the Swedish Armed Forces stand in formation near the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden, Tuesday, May 17, 2022.AP Photo/Karl Ritter

Lithuania’s defence ministry launched a study on full conscription in January this year, before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine the following month. Vladimir Putin’s assault has provoked another rethink.

Latvia has been the first to act. In early July, its defence ministry announced that men aged 18-27 will have to complete eleven months of military service. The bill, which must pass parliament, is expected to be introduced for next year.

"[The] Latvian population must realise that in order to survive we simply must 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," Artis Pabriks, the defence minister, has been quoted saying.

Other countries may follow. In April, the Dutch defence ministry reportedly began a study on introducing Scandinavian-style conscription over concerns that a quarter of military positions are currently unfilled. Poland introduced a new system of “paid voluntary general military service” in March.

In Romania — which rejected reintroducing conscription a few years ago — the Ministry of Defense presented a draft law this month that would compel nationals living abroad to return home within 15 days for conscription in the event of a state of emergency or war.

Not everyone has followed suit. António Costa, the Portuguese prime minister, has ruled out the return of mandatory military service. Neither does there appear much debate in Spain, Italy and Belgium. A survey taken this year by the Belgian publication La Dernière Heure found that 60% of respondents would not be willing to take up arms and fight for the country.

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

“There are some politicians demanding a general social year for all males and females, which would mean that military service would be one option,” explained Joachim Krause, a professor of political science at the University of Kiel.

“However, within military circles, there is no clear line,” he added. “On the one hand, there are supporters of the draft, arguing that Germany needs more troops. On the other hand, there are those who argue that drafted soldiers are no longer able to handle the complex technologies of modern warfare.”

Aside from patriotism, national unity and (in countries like France) finding things to do for unemployed youths, the concern is about whether Europeans are prepared to face new dangers.

Between 1999 and 2021, EU combined defence spending increased only by 20 per cent, according to reports by the European Defence Agency. That compares with a 66 per cent increase by the US, and 292 per cent by Russia and 592 per cent by China, over the same period.

For countries near Russia, the threat posed by Moscow is more palpable. Yet across Europe militaries are struggling with staffing. For instance, the Dutch military currently has around 9,000 vacancies, about a quarter of the total number of positions, according to local media reports.

Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa via AP
A Dutch officer and a German officer from Tank Battalion 414 stand next to each other on the military training area in Letzlingen, Germany, Thursday, May 6, 2021Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa via AP

However, “what’s 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, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank.

There has been “very little, if any, reflection in the UK on the impact of the war in Ukraine for ideas of national service, although it ought to have prompted such a debate,” said Sir Hew Strachan, a military historian and professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews,

In 2020, Strachan published a British Ministry of Defence-commissioned report about the relationship between the military and the general public.

“The press response to my report was to put national service today in the context of post-1945 national service and to evoke images of reluctant conscripts doing drill under the direction of bullying sergeant majors. This was not what I was proposing in the report,” he told Euronews.

Although it received a “more thoughtful reading” in the preparatory work for the UK Integrated Review — a major government study of British foreign and defence policy — even that didn’t really address the core theme when it was published last year, Strachan said.

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

Almost all military services reintroduced in the early 2010s lean towards volunteering. Most, indeed, are not universal in the same way they were — and there is some debate about whether they are “mandatory” or not.

The system reintroduced in 2017 in Sweden wasn’t the same as the one abolished seven years earlier, says Alma Persson, associate professor at Sweden’s Linköping University.

“The new version is for both men and women, and it is an attempt to keep an emphasis on personal motivation and voluntarism, although it is indeed mandatory,” she added.

This is the “paradox” of “ voluntary duty”, according to Persson. In Sweden, around 4,000 recruits are called up annually, after whittling down a slightly larger pool, most of whom volunteer to serve for a year. But that’s a small percentage of the total number of people of conscription age.

It’s similar in Norway. Of the tens of thousands called up every year to take a competitive test, only a few thousands are accepted for service. According to one estimate, only 15 per cent of those of conscription age are accepted.

Most of the 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 sign up will receive a monthly salary of almost €1000 and can then join the professional army after a year’s worth of full-time training. As such, recruits aren’t going full-time into the professional military, nor are they becoming part-time reservists.

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