Military Conscription in Italy and Europe: Strategies

Culture - May 20, 2024

During the past year, in various EU countries, one of the recurring themes has been military conscription. While in states such as Greece, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Austria, Cyprus and Lithuania it is already compulsory, in others the idea is becoming increasingly attractive and the reasons are to be found not only in the escalating international tensions, but also in the possibility of offering appropriate “civic education”. This is what is expressed, for example, by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Infrastructure, Matteo Salvini.


Military conscription: what the Italian government thinks about it

The topic was addressed by the Vice-Premier at the last alpine assembly. Salvini reported that the Lega party is working out the details of a bill that intends to reintroduce compulsory military service for six months. The minister added that the idea should be understood as “a great civic education project”, which would have nothing to do with the military service officially suspended in 2005 with the Martino law “as it was in my time, when someone from Udine would be sent to Bari, and someone from Bari to Cuneo”. “That of the Lega,” Salvini continued, “is a project on a regional basis, with people who can dedicate themselves to rescues, civil protection, first aid, and forest protection”. The aim of this proposal, moreover, would have nothing to do with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine; in fact, Salvini promised: “I will oppose with all my might the sending of troops to Ukraine and anywhere else, no Italian will ever go to war as long as I am here.” Then he added: “Macron and Monti are crazy and dangerous. War is a serious matter. I consider the mere hypothesis crazy and dangerous.”

Even in May last year, Senate President Ignazio La Russa had agreed to submit a proposal to reactivate a mandatory 40-day compulsory military service. “Training in only three weeks cannot happen,” he had explained at the time, “but if we take it to 40 days, which is the time the CAR used to prepare the military’s training basis, then 40 days could become a law that allows whoever wants to to voluntarily participate in the life of the armed forces. Anyone who wants to can – limited to the numbers that will be set – participate in the military life, among the Alpini or in the other corps, for 40 days and thus obtain training.” La Russa had also added that the initiative could include rewards that would translate into points for high school graduation, incentives for bachelor’s degrees and advantages in terms of training.

As things stand, both Salvini’s words and those spent last year by the President of the Senate are theoretical references. Also because the Minister of Justice, Guido Crosetto, has reportedly disagreed with Salvini’s position on compulsory conscription. In fact, he clarified to the media: “The armed forces cannot be thought of as a place to educate young people, which must be done by the family and the school. The armed forces are there to make professionals who defend institutions and peace. Universal civil service has nothing to do with the armed forces.”


In the rest of Europe: Germany

And while Italy is debating on the reintroduction of military conscription, other member states are also discussing the issue, considering it important to strengthen the military apparatus. In certain cases, it is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that defines the necessity: considering the fragile balances, several states fear aggression or border crossings by Russia. Therefore, they feel they must prepare themselves adequately.

One of the countries working tirelessly on this front is Germany. The conflict is far from its borders, but it is aware of a possible escalation. There are three alternatives under consideration: reintroducing one year of universal (compulsory) military service for newcomers; have only men undertake the course and not all of them, but those who are suitable (a test is thought to determine this); and, finally, the option of leaving things as they are, but working more and more on enlistment and access to voluntary military service.

According to the Telegraph, during the next few weeks Boris Pistorius, German Defence Minister, will give an account of what Germany will decide to do about this issue, even though the Minister has already expressed a position by ruling out voluntary military service and emphasising the need for a compulsory process.


Estonia: from rearmament to military conscription, the strategy

The case of Estonia is also peculiar. The state, when it comes to the military conscription issue, sticks to the provisions of the Constitution, in which the compulsory conscription is for men, but since 2013 women can also join on a voluntary basis. During the last two years, the concept of military training has been strengthened; according to Estonia, all the member states should reintroduce military conscription and commit their resources to appropriate military training. In essence, the war at the gates of Europe has only pushed neighbouring states to see themselves as more involved than they are at the moment.

In truth, the issue is broader than that. Restoring military conscription means sending a loud and clear signal to Russia: the possibility of encountering a strong defence that would not allow advancement. A theory also shared by Germany, in fact.

When reference is made to the strengthening of the military service, however, at least as far as Estonia is concerned, we are not only talking about human resources to be put at the service of the war cause (whether for an attack or defence strategy), but also about armaments as such. Hence, the application of new technologies and powerful equipment also affecting the navy; like, for example, new missiles such as the Blue Spear 5G SSM, already adopted. Not to mention the purchase of new means of transport like armoured vehicles.

Finally, Estonia’s involvement must be counted in terms of aid to Ukraine. Last March, the Estonian government announced aid of over EUR 20 million, a package that includes ammunition, bullets, and so on.


Denmark: compulsory military conscription also for women, all the numbers

Denmark is also working to strengthen its defence, to the extent of making military conscription mandatory also for women from 2026. The Minister of Defence on the subject explained: “A more robust structure, including full gender equality, must contribute to solving the challenges of defence, national mobilisation and equipment of our armed forces.”

In 2018 Sweden reintroduced compulsory conscription, also involving women for the first time; therefore, Denmark, with this decision, looks to neighbouring Sweden as a model to follow and reproduce for its own defence.

Furthermore, the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, pointed out that “We are not rearming because we want war. We are rearming because we want to avoid it”. So, rearmament would only indicate, as analysed above, a willingness to be prepared and to send clear signals.

As for the numbers, it is crucial to know that for the year 2023 in Denmark 4700 soldiers took part in the military conscription and, out of the total number, a 25% pertaining to women should be calculated. For the current year the number is expected to get even higher (there is talk of around 5,000 soldiers), just as the number relating to military expenditure, which will be well over 6 billion, will be significantly higher.