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Ending conscription

July 1, 2010

Much of Europe has done away with compulsory military service, or made heavy cut-backs. Of the 27 EU member states, 21 already make do without conscription. So does the rest of Europe still need the draft?

A French soldier folds the European Union flag
Does military conscription still have a place in Europe?Image: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

Many European countries, as well as most members of the transatlantic NATO military alliance, have already 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. The latest to do so is Sweden, which ended conscription on June 30.

Alongside Turkey, Germany remains the only major NATO country that sill requires its young men to serve in the military. Conscription also still exists in Austria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Norway.

Infografik Wehrpflicht in der EU englisch

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 4 months. However, conscription there is only employed if there is a shortage of volunteer recruits.

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.

Outside EU and NATO territories, compulsory service remains in Belarus, Macedonia, Moldova, Russia, Serbia, Switzerland and Ukraine.

Professional soldiers preferred

Cypriot reservists in camouflage take part in the Nikiforos military exercise near Larnaca, Cyprus
Cyprus has the longest compulsory service in the EUImage: picture alliance/dpa

Many countries experience difficulty finding enough recruits to fill their military. Another problem with getting rid of the draft is that professional armies are more expensive than those with conscripts.

Yet most national armies in the EU have shrunk to leaner, professional armies, and these do carry several advantages. Professional soldiers are generally better trained, more specialized and far more efficient than conscripts. They are also easier to deploy on overseas missions.

From Hammurabi to the French Revolution

A German tank in Afghanistan
Professional soldiers can be more easily deployed overseasImage: AP

Modern conscription originated in post-revolutionary France, where in 1793, the French National Assembly marshaled an army of 300,000 soldiers from the provinces. However, forced recruitment dates back to the beginnings of civilization; draft dodging was even outlawed by the Code of Hammurabi.

In today's world, nearly all countries that require military service also have alternative requirements for those who object to taking up arms. Within NATO the exception to this rule is Turkey, where compulsory service lasts 15 months with no allowance for conscientious objection.

Author: Bernd Riegert (dl)
Editor: Rob Turner

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