Europe Rediscovers the Military Draft

Soldiers in the Polish Multi-role exploitation Reconnaissance Team (MRT) conduct a security check on each other for radiation during CBRN training in Lisbon, Portugal on October 29, 2015 during NATO exercise Trident Juncture 15.

France, Italy, Latvia and Lithuania scrapped conscription as they concluded that large-scale defense was no longer necessary. But the draft is back.

In 2010 the Swedish parliament, having decided it no longer needed the large armed forces that had for centuries defended the country, suspended the mandatory draft. The following year, so did Germany. Other European countries including France, Italy, Latvia and Lithuania likewise scrapped or suspended conscription as they concluded that large-scale defense was no longer necessary. But now the draft is making a comeback in Europe.

Johan Wiktorin, a Swedish former army officer who is now a security columnist and consultant explained the difficulties his country faced in transitioning to an all-volunteer force: “Volunteer soldiers are not in our culture, and it has been difficult for the armed forces to compete on the labor market.” As a result, the Swedish Armed Forces are having trouble recruiting soldiers, even at the reduced manpower requirements for a volunteer military. With the country’s healthy economy generating plenty of job opportunities, only the most dedicated young men and women will voluntarily join the armed forces—and there have turned out to be too few such people.

What’s more, with Russia looming larger than it has in decades, Sweden is moving to address its manpower shortage. This month, a government-appointed rapporteur is expected to recommend a return to the draft. According to the daily Svenska Dagbladet, the rapporteur—Annika Nordgren Christensen, a former Green Party MP who served on the parliament’s defense committee—will recommend that starting next year, all seventeen-year-olds will be registered for the draft, with selection taking place when they are eighteen. Unlike the previous draft, the new one will—if passed by parliament, as is likely—also include women. That will bring Sweden in line with Norway, which has already expanded its draft to women, and several other European countries that are considering doing so.

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 defense.

Not surprisingly, other countries are rediscovering the draft too. In France, the draft is now being discussed as a response to terrorism, with Socialist Party presidential contender Arnaud Montebourg proposing a six-month general draft. In Germany, politicians such as the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary leader in Lower Saxony, Björn Thümler, argue that Germany should think about a return to the draft. (The Bundestag vote on March 24, 2011, suspended it rather than abolishing it altogether.) Thümler told the daily Die Welt: “It would be a way of preventing potential crises and would also ground the Bundeswehr in society more widely again.” Professor Patrick Sensburg, a CDU member of the Bundestag, argues that reinstating the draft would help Germany create “home defense battalions” to protect critical infrastructure.

A new civil defense white paper introduced by German interior minister Thomas de Maizière last month also brings up the draft, albeit in a circuitous way. Detailing contingency measures, the white paper mentions that Germany’s postal service has to prepare to efficiently deliver post, for example call-up papers from the Bundeswehr in the event of a return of the draft. But most decisionmakers oppose bringing the draft back, with Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen arguing last month that it would bring “no added benefit.”