The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some E.U. countries got rid of the draft years ago. Now, they’re thinking about bringing it back.

Troops from Germany, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Belgium participate in a NATO exercise in Poland. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Military conscription has regularly emerged as an issue of public debate in the United States, but public support for it remains low.

In Europe, public opinion long appeared to develop similarly, as conscription was abandoned in France in 1996, followed by Italy, Sweden and Germany.

But more recently, many Europeans — especially those who are now too old to be drafted — have changed their minds on the issue. Following terrorist attacks last year, 80 percent of all French and 70 percent of Swedes said they would support a return of conscription.

This week, Swedish media outlets reported that the country's government might be planning to return to conscription as early as 2019. According to those reports, both men and women would be eligible to be drafted — a practice that already exists in neighboring Norway, for instance.

In Germany, only 36 percent currently support a reintroduction of conscription, but the fact that the issue is back in the public spotlight is surprising enough to many observers.

When European Union countries decided to abandon conscription in the past decade, few of today's E.U. problems were predictable. In many ways, the current demands to bring back conscription reflect a wide range of different issues E.U. countries are faced with. Nordic and Baltic nations in particular are worried about the possibility of a Russian attack. Terrorist attacks have strained security resources in France, creating an urgent need for more personnel. And the refugee influx into Germany in 2015 showed the country that it is ill-prepared for crises: Amid a bureaucratic chaos and a lack of public workers, Europe's economic powerhouse at times struggled to provide tents and food to refugees.

Germany and Sweden were also among the E.U. nations that accepted the most refugees last year. Conscription could become a binding element for their increasingly multicultural societies, requiring men and women from all backgrounds to live together, advocates say. Those arguments found little resonance only a few years ago.

When Germany abandoned military conscription for young men in 2011, a sense of relief could be felt in high schools across the country. The quest to escape military service had previously been a major concern among students in the country, who searched the Internet for advice on how to fail the mandatory physical examination. The six-month program had long been considered outdated, useless and unjust by critics. Whether young men were drafted often depended more on coincidence than on physical fitness, they said. Instead of starting their careers, millions sat out six months in barracks, according to them.

Negative public perception of conscription was partially backed by a recent report of researchers from the Center for Economic Policy Research, who concluded that "military service increases the likelihood of future crimes, mostly among males from disadvantaged backgrounds and with a previous criminal history."

In 2011, Germany decided to pause the program.

More recently, however, questions are on the rise over whether conscription might have been declared dead too early.

Russia's annexation of Crimea and a lack of young Germans willing to serve in the army voluntarily have fueled a new debate in the country over whether conscription should be brought back. Germans drafted into the army also used to have the choice between joining the military or serving alternatively as social workers, for instance in care homes for retirees. Both the military and social projects that rely on young volunteers have faced a lack of young workers since 2011.

Although leading politicians, including Germany's current defense minister, have rejected the idea of reviving conscription, calls for its reintroduction have become more vocal. With far smaller defense budgets than the United States, some European nations are increasingly worried whether they would be able to confront an attack at a NATO partner on their continent.

Germany's military was so under-equipped in 2015 that it used broomsticks instead of machine guns in a NATO exercise, drawing widespread ridicule. But Germany is far from being the only E.U. country that has been criticized for not spending enough on its military.

The lack of funding might raise uncomfortable questions for those seeking a reintroduction of mandatory military service. How would Germany and other countries accommodate hundreds of thousands of new conscripts if they cannot even provide equipment to the increasingly few soldiers they currently have?

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