Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

The End of Conscription in Europe?

Academic journal article Contemporary Economic Policy

The End of Conscription in Europe?

Article excerpt



Militaries across Europe are downsizing, and some are eliminating conscription in favor of all-volunteer forces (AVFs). The transition is often bumpy and at times has been opposed by the military leadership. For example, in France, President Jacques Chirac surprised the military when he announced an end to conscription in 1996. Military leaders objected; conscription, they argued, was the only way to get computer programmers and language specialists (Bloch, 2000). Otherwise, they would face the costly alternative of paying competitive wages or finding other ways to make military service attractive to such skilled individuals.

Despite greater use of voluntarism across the continent, most European countries still plan to retain conscription. Germany has cut the number of conscripts but has no plans to move to a completely volunteer military. All of the Scandinavian countries plan to retain conscription, as well as the Central and Eastern European countries (see Tables 1 and 2).

Why are some countries in Europe abandoning conscription whereas others plan to retain it? The end of the cold war and the increasing sophistication of weapons systems are often cited as reasons for eliminating conscription (Sands, 2001). Although geopolitical and technological factors may be important contributors to the termination of the draft in some European countries, the disparity between those countries eliminating conscription and those retaining it cannot be accounted for solely by those factors because they affect all of Europe.

The disparity also cannot be explained by differences in national wealth. Some analysts have noted that conscription is generally inversely correlated with national wealth and living standards (Van Doom, 1975; Ross, 1994). Yet this is not a complete explanation; some of Europe's wealthiest and poorest countries plan to retain conscription (Haltiner, 1998).

Any explanation that attempts to find a single economic or strategic cause of the changing pattern of conscription in Europe will fall short because each country is responding to its place in the current international environment and the constraints of its political system. The economic arguments for ending conscription and the predictions of those who advocated the AVF in the United States were largely proven correct (Warner and Asch, 2001). Yet the question of when and how to end conscription and move to an AVF is ultimately a political decision that reflects both international and domestic political factors, as well as domestic economic and operational military considerations.

Despite the complexity inherent in such factors, there are some broad patterns in Europe. We will describe current developments there, briefly examine the reasons why several European countries have recently decided to end conscription in favor of an AVF, and compare those countries with those that plan to retain conscription. That discussion will give some indication of what we might expect to see in the near future.


Of the 28 European countries addressed in this article 20 still use conscription and have no current plans to change that poiicy. Four--the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg--already maintain an all-volunteer military, and four others--Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France--are in the process of ending conscription (see Table 2). Their reasons for doing so vary somewhat, but there are a few basic themes repeated in those four countries that are now ending conscription.

Given the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, many Western European political leaders argue that there is little reason to maintain large standing armies for territorial defense. Conscripts in these countries' militaries are generally prohibited by law from being used in foreign missions, which eliminates their participation in virtually all conceivable post-cold war military operations. …

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