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Germany accelerates debate over reintroduction of compulsory military service

Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has prepared a proposal to address the lack of soldiers in the army with the support of the Social Democrats and Conservatives

Servicio militar obligatorio Alemania
German soldiers on parade in front of the Ministry of Defense in Berlin, April 11.CLEMENS BILAN (EFE)

Germany’s military rearmament, in addition to a representing a major financial outlay, also involves solving a pressing problem: the shortage of soldiers in the army. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has been discussing possible models to revive compulsory military service for some time and now more and more political figures, both from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the conservative CDU/CSU, are preparing the ground for what already looks like a probable reintroduction of conscription.

Pistorius wants to reverse Germany’s decision to abandon compulsory military service in 2011, noting during a visit to the United States last week that “times have changed.” In his opinion, suspending it was “a mistake.” “I am convinced that Germany needs a form of military conscription,” he said during a speech at Johns Hopkins University. For the Social Democrat, it is a necessary step to “ensure military stability” at a time when the war in Ukraine threatens Europe’s security.

The German army, with a regular strength of 180,000 soldiers, has become too small. This is a reality that the government has been warning about for some time. The recent restructuring of the army to make it “war-ready” also involves increasing the number of troops. The government has calculated as a target a figure of at least 203,000 soldiers to ensure full defensive readiness. Added to this is the fact that 20,000 new soldiers a year are needed just to compensate for those who leave the service. Plans put in place in the past to reach a level of 203,000 personnel were unsuccessful. In addition, there are not enough reservists to meet requirements in the case of emergencies.

With these figures in hand, the Minister of Defense undertook a tour of various countries to analyze different forms of military service on the ground, such as for example that which exists in Sweden, where male and female citizens have to fill out a questionnaire at the age of 18, which includes information about their physical fitness and whether they would be willing to perform voluntary military service. The most suitable candidates are then contacted and asked to participate in a call-up, as only a certain percentage can be trained each year. However, if there are not enough volunteers, compulsory conscription can be introduced. This model is the one that is gathering strength in Germany.

The “Pistorius option” is expected to be announced soon. His spokesman stressed last Wednesday that the minister will present the proposal this quarter, i.e. by June at the latest. It will then be discussed in the German government — led by the Social Democrats, with the support of the Greens and Liberals — and then in parliament. “It is important that we have an army that is effective and can fulfill its tasks. How exactly this can be guaranteed now and, in the future, will be discussed in the coming weeks and months,” said Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit. The obligation could then apply to some 600,000 Germans who reach adulthood each year.

For the time being, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) voted at its federal congress last week in favor of gradually introducing a year of compulsory service for all, whether in the German army, in social work or, for example, in disaster relief or with the emergency services. The conservatives’ proposal is that a group of army experts would determine how many troops are needed each year. Only those needed at the time would be called up.

The defense policy spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the German parliament, Florian Hahn, called on the defense minister to quickly present plans for the gradual reintroduction of compulsory military service. While the conservatives’ proposal would be in line with that proposed by Pistorius, talks are not yet underway, as the defense minister pointed out. The model he will present for discussion is expected to be similar. “I would like to publicly explain more details when I have spoken with my coalition partners and parliamentary group partners,” Pistorius said of something he believes should happen “shortly.”

The cost of military service

In addition to the conservatives, SPD leader Lars Klingbeil said he was open to a debate on social or military service for young people. “Every young citizen should have to face the question of whether they can imagine themselves serving the country,” he told the Rheinische Post newspaper. “It could be in the military or in the social or cultural sector. We should go back to that.” However, he rejected a return to the “old compulsory military service.”

The German parliament suspended military service in 2011, 55 years after it was introduced. However, its legal basis in the Constitution remained. According to current legislation, compulsory military service can be resumed in the event of increased tensions and the need to defend the country. However, reactivating it entails a cost that will have to be included in the budget in a year in which the weakness of the German economy does not leave much room for maneuver.

With the so-called special fund for the army of €100 billion ($108 billion) almost on its last legs, Pistorius is already calling for a significant increase in the regular defense budget for next year. To raise the money needed for his plans, he wants defense and civil protection spending to be excluded from the debt brake set in the Constitution. In his view, without security, a balanced national budget is of little value, he said last week.

The response from Finance Minister Christian Lindner was not long in coming. “Unfortunately, Pistorius only points to the option of creating security through debt. Citizens are increasingly being saddled with permanent interest burdens,” said the leader of the Freedom Party (FDP). “The best way is to reallocate money in our large state budget and get the economy moving,” Lindner added about a looming budget debate that will again strain the coalition government.

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