Mandatory Military Service: A Solution for National Defence in EU Member States?

Matt Hinsa || Creative Commons

On June 9, 2004, the Hungarian government decided upon the abolishment of the mandatory enlistment to the military and hence 1831 conscripts were able to discharge on November 3, in the same year, bringing a 136-years-old disreputable tradition to its end. Although the decision was made by the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition government led by Péter Medgyessy, it was also actively supported by Fidesz.

The abolishment of conscription was preceded by numerous societal-political debates with a great emphasis on the question of human rights, considering that the theory and practice of compulsory enlistment of citizens into military service restricts the individual’s right of self-determination and it is also contradictory to the United Nations’ European Convention on Human Rights. Additionally, the attainment of the NATO-membership in 1999 implicated the formation of defence forces that are not only able to defend the country but also to perform its international duties such as the participation in NATO peace support missions.

The debate was brought back to the political agenda on January 16, 2016, when László Kövér, Speaker of the National Assembly expressed his regret over the abolishment of the compulsory military service and described it as a “disastrous mistake”. Kövér added, however, that he is well aware of the fact that without a significant change in the public opinion the restoration of the questionable institution seems unimaginable. Therefore, a successful restoration would require a Europe-wide cooperation, which – according to Kövér – could make everyone stronger: Europe in general, and Hungary in particular.

Even though the statement has provoked intense reactions, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán shortly made it clear that the issue of conscription is not part of the governmental agenda and that it is unlikely that it will become such. Despite the rebuttal, it is still conspicuous that the government – following the initiative of Minister of Defence István Simicskó – is currently working on a solution to how the manpower of the Defence Forces could be increased (focusing on the voluntary reserve forces) together with the provided financial resources.

On the European level, the emergence of the Ukrainian crisis was the last time when conscription entered the picture – due to the fear of Russian aggression many countries reconsidered the idea. At that time in Poland, almost 50 percent of the population supported the concept of conscription, while this proportion rose to 63 percent in the Czech Republic. The Lithuanian government even decided upon a temporary restoration of compulsory enlistment as an underlying foundation for the voluntary military service. However, in Hungary, the rejection of the idea appeared to be significantly higher, which can be clearly seen in the numbers of the regular and voluntary forces as they are both facing a serious lack of manpower – which is estimated around five thousand people each.

In spite of the greater enthusiasm, the reinstated peacetime conscription did not achieve its desired goal in any of the involved countries. In Lithuania for instance, it only contributed to the acceleration of youth emigration (last year, 55 thousand people left the country – most of them were military-aged men).

This phenomenon, inter alia, indicates the tendency that while conscription is still in existence in some EU countries (such as Austria, Finland, Estonia, Greece and Cyprus), modern warfare is fundamentally moving towards the domination of professional armies.

Zoltán Szenes (a military expert, former Chief of General Staff, professor of the National University of Public Service) pointed out that while professional armies are more expensive, conscripts are harder to deploy in a real combat situation, and hence the casualties in human life are heavier in the latter case. Additionally, conscripts cannot be deployed abroad while the most successful field of the Hungarian Defence Forces is peacekeeping (in connection with participation in NATO-missions) which would become infeasible with the restoration of mandatory military service. Not all of the actors of the Hungarian political palette would mind that though: Jobbik, for example, strongly opposes all military operations involving Hungarian soldiers going abroad, with special regard to the Northern-Iraqi mission, which – according to the party – only increases the risks of terrorist attacks in Hungary.

Nevertheless, any political aspiration aimed at increasing the number of professional soldiers – even if only focusing on the manpower of the voluntary reserve forces – has to face two additional factors: the problems of recruitment and financial matters. As for the former is concerned, the main problem is that only 40 percent of the Hungarian population is suited for military service, which complicates the process of selection when a fast and higly qualified army is needed, not to mention the already mentioned social lack of support for the idea. Financing, on the other hand, is already problematic – even with the current manpower-shortage, yet the budget for 2016 does not seem to provide the required financial resources for the necessary capacity enhancements.

Orsolya Szabo Palocz
Free Market Foundation