20 July 2020

The European Union’s states reopened a debate: the compulsory military service

Sorin Butiri

After the end of the Second World War, but especially after the end of the Cold War and NATO’s enlargement towards the East, most of the European states gave up the compulsory military service. Russia’s actions in Ukraine’s eastern area and the illegal annexation of Crimea have forced the European Union’s member states to consider the compulsory military service. Some of them have already made a decision and reintroduced the compulsory military service both for men and women. At the same time, a series of European states have chosen the alternative military service, meanwhile others did not make a decision yet.

Image source: Mediafax

Compulsory, alternative and, why not, universal national service

In the 19th and 20th centuries, most of the countries have ensured the necessary human resource of their armies through the compulsory military service. But those times, full of conflicts, have ended long ago and, after the Second World War, most of the states started to give up this way of providing the necessary fight personnel for the army. Later on, after the Cold War ended and the NATO’s enlargement towards the East, more states chose this path.

After Russia’s actions in Ukraine, for many European states, the compulsory military service topic was reopened and Lithuania has decided (March 2015) to even return to this type of people’s defence training. Lithuania’s example was then followed by Sweden, in January 2018. Together with these two states, Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Norway have never given up the compulsory military service.

From an organizational perspective, most of the states which gave up the compulsory military service have included in their national laws alternative training methods, like the civilian service, which does not involve joining the armed forces. In the states that never gave up the compulsory military service, the people who refuse to join this service (for religious, health or ideological reasons) are forced to join an alternative training method for a longer time.

There are also European states which do not seem to consider returning to the compulsory military service or an alternative service and, in France, president Macron has tried to reintroduce an alternative training method, called the “Universal National Service”. The service, which is not strictly military, but rather civic, involves both women and men, aged 16. In June 2019, it started to test this system, to then become operational until 2021.

But France is not the only EU member state which considered this option. In Belgium, for example, according to an IPSOS poll, around two thirds of the citizens are for returning to the compulsory military service or an alternative military one, both for men and women.

Since 2018, the Democratic Christian Union (CDU) in Germany was suggesting that men and women should complete a year of military service. Also, the CDU was saying that in this service should be included also the refugees, to ease their integration in the German society. More recently, in Germany has burst forth a new controversy on the extremism fight strategies within the federal army and police. Therefore, the proposal of social-democrat Eva Högl has reopened the discussion on returning to the compulsory military service. Högl  said that returning to the compulsory military service would contribute to decreasing the right extremist manifestations within the army. Most of the politicians rejected Högl’s proposal.  Due to obvious reasons, the proposal was only supported by the nationalist-authoritarian party, “Alternative for Germany” (AfD). This political, right radical group is supporting the return of conservatory values.  An important value is the “order and discipline” which, according to AfD, could be cultivated by doing the military stint.

A continuously changing world which asks for…changes

The question is: why is the recruitment topic back in everyone’s attention in Europe? Long story short, that’s because the world is increasingly dangerous, more unstable and changing.

A more complex answer to this question would consider the geopolitical situation of the continent and Russia’s increasingly aggressive actions. Once with Crimea’s annexation and the Russian military exercises developed from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, but also the new cyber threats, EU’s security must be reviewed. To these “close” threat, we can also add:

- China’s development of military capacities, beyond the country’s defence needs by its armed forces;

-Iran and its nuclear objectives;

-the terrorist groups’ actions in the Middle East and their enlargement in Africa;

Therefore, the past and more recent history should remind us that the offensive military actions are quickly and intensively developed, with “surprising” fight procedures and methods, offering the part that is defending itself a very limited time of action. This is the reason why countering an offensive military action will involve, in the first phase (if there will be another phase also!), the military resources available at that time. From the perspective of the above mentioned possible threats, this means that we need a series of flexible relevant capacities which can easily adapt to the possible action scenarios, including the human resource.

And, in order to provide this human resource, the military stint topic must be seriously considered regardless if this is mandatory or made through an alternative method. The final result might be quantified through the number of people, militarily trained previously and who can be asked to go to fight, if needed, in maximum 24-48 hours.

They should complete the permanent human resource of the armed forces.

Advantages and disadvantages of the alternative or compulsory military service

The compulsory military service is still seen, at the European level, as breaching the basic principles of democracy. This perception is generated by the recent examples given by the Nazi Germany, fascist Italy or URSS, together with the other former members of the Warsaw Treaty.

But, in order to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the compulsory or alternative military service, we must get rid of the bias against the past and consider the present.

A first advantage would be the gender equality and the social-economic status. The military service is, often, associated with men, because most of the states had, or still have, legislative provisions to that end. Currently, most of the legislative provisions from the EU states on recruitment no longer refer exclusively to men. For example, Norway has introduced the military service for both men and women in 2015. Sweden followed Norway’s example in 2017, when it established that the military service is mandatory for men and women. Even the French president Macron’s project (the Universal National Service) refers to both men and women. This way, by joining the armed forces, women can also be promoted in the military hierarchy, just like in any other private company. Applying gender equality can also come with benefits for the armed forces, as the priority for recruitment is the specific abilities of a person, not its gender. By extending the recruitment base it can also be extended the social integration between different classes. To that end, Theodor Paleologu was stating: “Romania is, now, divided in pieces which do not communicate. And, on one hand, such a short military service is a unique occasion to make people from different social categories to communicate, to know each other better, to have a minimum social mix. On the other hand, it is an opportunity to verify the level of education of young people”. In the same context, general Stefan Danila, former chief of the Major Staff of the Army, was stating: “The fact that Romania no longer has people to join the compulsory military service has created a breach between the Army and the society”.

Economically speaking, there are different opinions. Most of the theories depart from the fact that any individual must find his place in society and work in the field he is good at. Therefore, not the entire population of a country must join the military. From this point of view, doing the military stint, be it alternative or compulsory, by someone would affect the private sector by a “professional”, meanwhile his/her performances during the military training might not be as expected. Thus, the supporters of this theory state that the compulsory or alternative recruitment or military service would not offer support to the permanent armed forces, if needed. Also, those who support this theory say that, in this case, professional military would have to be paid similar to the private companies’ employees, so that their place and role in society to be recognized and respected. This conclusion completed the following analysis direction – the effectiveness of a mixed army, composed of soldiers (professionals) and people who have gone through the military stint. In most of the EU states where the compulsory or alternative military service works, the duration of the stint is somewhere between 8 months and 2 years. This period allows only going through a basic training, which would not actually allow the effective management of critical situations if required to join a real fight action. This short training period becomes even more important if the armed forces are using more and more performance-enhancing technologies which a ask for digital abilities as well.

Conclusions, but not answers, for now

Keeping a large-sized army is expensive and, in some cases, even ineffective, financially speaking. Therefore, all the EU countries rely on reduced armed forces, composed of professionals. But maintaining these forces requires motivation. The lack of strong motivation leads to the decrease of army’s moral, given that the pressure over the military personnel – paid modestly, often inadequately equipped, often asked to do more with less, feeling the ignorance of the society on their work and the lack of political support - is significant.

At the same time, it is noteworthy that the popularity of compulsory military recruitment and service is increasing comparing to the minimum level recorded at the beginning of the 2000’s. Therefore, could the return to the compulsory military service be a training method and an additional human resource for the army in case of crisis and conflict? Or is the reservist volunteering model the best option?

Translated by Andreea Soare