This weekend, in a national referendum, a strong majority – 60 percent – of Austrians have voted to keep conscription, meaning that the small Alpine republic will be one of the few European Union states to continue with the draft in the second decade of the 21st century.
One of the remarkable stories of the post-Cold War era is how conscription, which used to be near-universal in continental Europe for a century and more, evaporated once the Soviet threat collapsed. In many European countries, conscription had been popular not just with the Right, which favored strong militaries, but also with the Left, which wanted armies to not be the exclusive province of (presumably right-wing) professionals, who might hold reactionary, and perhaps anti-democratic, views. In this regard, the end of conscription in France and Germany, the latter in 2011, can be viewed as politically significant bellweathers, since in those countries – both of which can be said to have had “issues” with rightist officer cadres in the 20th century – the Left wanted to drop conscription, since it was unpopular with young men who viewed the draft unenthusiastically.
It is therefore tempting to see Austria as bucking a European trend here, since it will be one of only a handful of EU countries keeping the draft, but the reality is a bit more complicated. In the first place, conscription is distinctly non-onerous in Austria, with the call-up period being only for six months, and many conscripts serve near their homes. Moreover, only 22,000 young men are called to the colors per annum, and deferments, especially for alternative (i.e. non-military) service are easily had.
The center-left Social Democrats (SPOe) thought they had a winning issue with their advocacy for a professional military of 8.500 regulars backed by 9.300 volunteer reservists, since this was a vote-getter with some young people, especially in the SPOe strongholds of Metro Vienna. Yet it’s clear that the center-right People’s Party (VP) and right-wing Freedom Party (FPOe), which favored keeping conscription, had the better case, given the vote outcomes. For the SPOe this is a significant political setback.
Reasons for keeping conscription were many and varied, as polling data confirmed. In the first place, it’s far from clear that Austria, with its very modest defense outlays, can actually afford a professional military; more than one EU member in recent years has found that, contrary to initial projections, professionals indeed cost far more than short-service conscripts. And no one in Vienna really thinks defense spending will rise anytime soon, as the decade-long political mess regarding the procurement and operational employment of a single squadron of fifteen Eurofighters for the air force, still ongoing, has demonstrated.
Moreover, the conscription debate was only partly about military issues. Austria’s six-month service period is so brief that most conscripts cannot perform high-skill jobs, which require a great deal of training to achieve proficiency. Many serve in make-work administrative positions and lower-skill jobs, the value of which to the army seems ready-made for a efficiency assessment by an outside accounting firm. Yet conscripts, cheap and available, are vital to many not entirely military projects, especially disaster relief in the provinces – not a trivial concern in an Alpine country where weather-related disturbances are commonplace, so regional commands and local politicos were eager to keep the army on standby.
Additionally, alternative service brings 14,000 cheap workers yearly to countless social services all over Austria – from hospitals to social service firms to meals on wheels for the elderly – so the indirect value of conscription even to agencies far outside the Ministry of Defense is real and impossible to replace at a reasonable cost.
Last but surely not least, Austrian neutrality, enshrined in the 1955 State Treaty which won the country its freedom after a decade of Allied occupation, is genuinely popular across party lines, and few Austrians want to join NATO or see their troops deployed far away in wars few Austrians care about. A fear of future deployments, perhaps as part of NATO, which seemed implicit in the SPOe’s advocacy of a professional military, loomed large in voters’ minds, since in recent years Austria has watched nearly all its former empire – including close-by countries like Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, most recently Croatia – join NATO, professionalize their militaries along U.S.-mandated lines, and commit soldiers to conflicts far from home, above all the losing war in Afghanistan. As NATO contemplates a hasty retreat from Central Asia in 2014, it is understandable that not many Austrians would want their forces, volunteers or not, caught up in that mess far, far away.