Europe: Is compulsory military service back?

After the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War in Europe, many countries abolished conscription. But in the wake of the war in Ukraine, several are considering bringing it back.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, universal conscription seemed to be disappearing in Europe. During the last 20 years, if not before, conscription has been abolished in most countries on the continent.

Germany suspended military service in 2011, but it can be reinstated if the Bundestag determines there is a need for defense, as stipulated in the country’s Basic Law.

The situation is similar in many other European countries. Of the 29 that are NATO members, including Turkey, only six have held conscription since 1993. The UK, US and Canada have had exclusively professional armies for 50 years or more.

However, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has sparked much debate on the issue, with many countries considering whether they should reintroduce conscription and increase their defense budgets.

Europe: Is compulsory military service back?
The war in Ukraine has led many Europeans to consider reintroducing conscription.

Ukraine and Lithuania

Shortly after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine reintroduced conscription for men ages 18 to 26. Lithuania followed in 2015 with men aged 18-25. After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 20, 2022, the Ukrainian government enacted a law making all physically fit men between the ages of 18 and 60 potentially subject to conscription.

Latvia

The Baltic state is one of three NATO members, along with Estonia and new member Finland, that border the main territory of Russia. Latvia plans to reintroduce conscription, which the other two never abolished.

Starting in 2024, all men ages 18 to 27 will be required to undergo 11 months of military training. Starting in 2028, 7,500 Latvians will be summoned every year. According to NATO, that is the equivalent of the total number of professional soldiers in the country in 2022.

Romania

An early attempt to reintroduce conscription failed in 2015, but Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca, a retired general, spoke again in favor last spring. In a bill introduced last year, the Romanian Defense Ministry backed a proposal that all Romanians of military age living abroad report for military service within 15 days in the event of a general mobilization.

Holland and Sweden

The Dutch army is currently short of 9,000 soldiers, and the government is considering increasing the number through conscription, as Sweden has been doing since 2018.

The largest country in Scandinavia abolished conscription in 2010 but reintroduced it because not enough volunteers were signed up. All 18-year-olds have to report for service, but only a small proportion are conscripted for actual military service, as is the case in Norway.

Norway and Denmark

As of 2016, all 18-year-olds in Norway, male and female, must report for military service. But only about 9,000 of the 60,000 annual candidates are called up for 19 months of service. According to official sources, military service has a level of prestige similar to that of higher education due to the strict selection process. Denmark also has conscription, but there are enough volunteers to meet the demand.

French

France is currently discussing a “light” form of conscription. President Emmanuel Macron introduced the Universal National Service in 2019, which allows young people to volunteer for a month and serve their country. The government is now considering making this compulsory for all French citizens aged 15-17.

Germany

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz rejected a proposal by his Defense Minister Boris Pistorius to introduce conscription. However, there are calls for a national debate on the issue from across the political spectrum.

Bundestag commissioner for the military, Eva Högl, who also belongs to the ruling Social Democrats like Scholz and Pistorius, recently suggested that a year of compulsory service in military or civilian institutions should be discussed. She also said that the military should talk about their work in schools. 

John D. Walter