Is mandatory military service returning to Europe?

When on the television program ‘In your house or in mine’ Bertín Osborne asked Pedro Sánchez about his experience in the military service that he had completed in Cáceres in 1996, the President of the Government responded: “It was a waste of time.” Five years later, within the framework of an agreement between José María Aznar, then president of the Spanish Executive, and Jordi Pujol, of the Generalitat, the mandatory ‘military’ was abolished. Since January 2002, the Spanish army has been staffed by volunteers, like most European states. Now, with the sound of bombs falling on Ukraine just two hours by plane from the heart of the continent, in countries like Germany and France the debate is opening up about whether military service should be mandatory again.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier proposed it in June. Polls were immediately carried out: 61% of Germans were in favor. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has promoted an increase in military spending. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the attacks on energy infrastructure in the Baltic are the arguments of those in favor of this increase in war potential. The Minister of Defense, Boris Pistorius, is blunt: «Eliminating compulsory military service was a mistake. We must be prepared for a war in Europe.

France, to a lesser extent, has also taken steps along these lines. The President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, announced in 2018 the creation of a month-long ‘military’ for teenagers. He thus wanted to cultivate a “sense of belonging” and the construction of a “more resilient” society. The plan has been in service for just a couple of weeks. But the conflict in Ukraine and the war in Gaza, with so much echo on the streets of France, have revived the debate. Former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe confesses that he is willing to listen to those who propose the return of the ‘military’. And he gives a reason: “We live in a dangerous world.”

There are countries where young people must go through the army, such as Austria, Lithuania, Estonia, Albania, Cyprus, Greece, Brazil, Egypt, Cuba, South Korea… Sweden eliminated the mandatory ‘military’ in 2010 and recovered it in 2018 In Norway, a model praised by defense analyst Elisabeth Braw is applied. There, citizens are summoned en masse and go through a selection process. The army keeps the fittest. Entering this elite represents a merit in the work curriculum.

Israel’s militarized model

The war in Gaza has brought to light another military model, that of Israel, a country that has lived with war since its birth. The ‘military’ is mandatory. 36 months for men and 24 for women. After that period and voluntarily, you can join the military forces. The rest will remain as reservists until the age of 51 with the commitment to complete annual training courses. That latent base of citizens now makes up a good part of Israel’s troops in the war in the Gaza Strip. If someone refuses military service without reason, they are arrested and imprisoned, something that Amnesty International fights against.

In Spain, the foundations of military service were laid in the 18th century due to the lack of troops. For a time soldiers were chosen by lot. And the obligation could be avoided in exchange for a sum of money. The poorest were condemned to parade in uniform. Under Franco, military service was considered by the regime as a ‘title of honor’. That derailed the Transition. Insubordination and conscientious objection grew. Like the recruit Pedro Sánchez, a good part of the young people thought that the ‘military’ was a “waste of time” that interrupted their professional careers. Now, while the bombs and screams echo in Ukraine and Gaza, the debate in Europe about mandatory military service is heating up.

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