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It’s Germany’s turn to question military service

Wednesday, 20 October, 2010 - 17:23

The German minister of Defence wants to get rid of conscription, following suit with the many European countries, the UK and France included, that have put an end to military service. Yet 18 countries in Europe still draft their citizens; in Germany a majority of young conscripts prefer to do a civil service.

Germany, Europe's main military power along with the UK and France, remains deeply divided over the use of military force. Last August, the minister of Defence, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, proposed ending military service, just four months after a polemic over the Bundeswehr's engagement in Afghanistan forced the president of the Federal Republic, Horst Köhler, to resign.

Politics, not geopolitics

The German minister of Defence in fact talked about “suspending” the military service, not “ending” it. “Who can predict what the situation will be 20 or 30 years from now?” he says. What sounds like geopolitical caution is mainly political wariness. Not everyone in Guttenberg's party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is happy with the proposal. Some, like Ernst-Reinhard Beck, CDU representative at the Commission for Security Affairs, defend the military service because it allows “each citizen to defend their country”. Moreover, putting a definite end to conscription would mean changing the constitution, which requires a vote by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. That would be no mean feat considering how divided the ruling coalition is on the subject. By proposing to simply suspend military service, which requires only a simple majority, the minister and Chancellor Angela Merkel hope to avoid a lengthy debate and internal squabbling within the CDU.

Saving money on troops

If Germany decides to get rid of its conscription, it would join the long list of European countries that have already done so: Belgium in 1994, France in 1995, Spain in 2001, Italy in 2006, Poland in 2007. Sweden most recently ended its military service, on July 1st, 2010. In Western Europe, only Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Denmark and Finland still conscript their citizens, but usually for no more than a few months of actual service. Maintaining large armies appears pointless, now that the Cold War is over, and direct threats to European countries have consequently ended. Commanders-in-chief are rather looking to develop highly trained troops and increase their projection force, in order to conduct 21st-century warfare in distant theatres of operation.
The idea behind Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg's proposed reform could be summarised as “fewer men but more efficient and better equipped”. Ending military service in Germany would thus scale down the army from its current size of 252,000 men to 165,000 and trim down its budget. Such budgetary savings would be in line with the government's budget-reduction goal for the ministry of Defense, which aim to save 8.3 bn euros over four years (the objective for all governmental institutions is to save 80 bn euros).

Tough recruitment

If the Bundeswehr does become a professional army, one of the major challenges it faces will be recruitment. When the Spanish army switched, it failed to promote military careers and did not meet its recruitment targets, even though some South American and African nationals may enlist in the Spanish army.
But in Germany, the end of the military service might also jeopardise the “civil service”. It was created as an alternative to the Bundeswehr for young German conscripts (only 16% of an age group choose the army) and offers cheap labour to numerous social organisations and associations. Many associations fear for their survival, if the civil service goes at the same time as the military service.

Strength of Europe's main national armies (active servicemen), 2008 :

  • France: 250 000 (+ 100 000 gendarmes)
  • Germany: 247 000 (conscription)
  • United Kingdom: 240 000
  • Italy : 187 000
  • Greece : 177 000 (conscription)
  • Spain: 144 000
  • Poland : 100 000
  • Romania : 90 000

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