Europe - Issue 91 - Magazine | Monocle

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Present arms

By Elna Nykänen Andersson

It seemed like a good idea at the time: Sweden abolished compulsory national military service in 2010, more than 100 years after it had been introduced. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the government saw no need to maintain a large invasion army; the country’s new small but professional unit would instead focus on international peacekeeping and humanitarian assignments.

The picture started to change in 2013 when Sweden’s then commander in chief Sverker Göranson said that in the event of an attack, Sweden was only capable of staging a defence for one week – and only in one place. Then the defence forces reported difficulties in finding staff. Soon after, Crimea was annexed by Russia. Now? Sweden is poised to bring conscription back.

The issue was raised earlier this year by Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström, who said she would welcome the reintroduction of conscription – a “modernised, gender-equal version” – with military and civilian components.

Russia’s actions tend to be raised as a motive for bringing conscription back but Swedish defence forces have more acute problems. The military is short of soldiers and the government has demanded a recruitment solution. Options will be presented next autumn but many believe that before long, Swedish men – and perhaps women – will have to serve their country again.

“It seems very likely,” says Tomas Ries, senior lecturer at the department of security, strategy and leadership at the Swedish Defence University. “The defence forces can’t handle their recruitment without conscription. Sweden has basically given up its defence but now politicians are starting to notice that it’s needed again.”

In Wallström’s model, conscripts could choose between military or civil service, also helping out with crises such as storms, fires and the likes of last year’s influx of refugees. Conscription is also seen as a way to promote integration.

Yet a return to a time when about 80 per cent of young Swedish men were conscripted doesn’t seem likely. Instead, Sweden is looking to Norway and Denmark; both countries apply a selective conscription and only recruit suitable candidates.

“The problem with conscription is that it is sometimes perceived as unfair; some are forced to do it and others not,” says Stefan Ring, defence expert at the Swedish General Defence Association. “But they haven’t had problems with that in Norway and Denmark.”

In line with the discussion on conscription, Russia’s recent behaviour has fuelled the Swedish debate on Nato membership. Sweden has long taken a neutral stance that has kept it out of wars – and out of Nato. Since last autumn, Sweden’s centre-right parties have come out in support of membership, while the ruling Social Democrats and Greens are both against. About 40 per cent of voters are now in favour of joining.

At the moment, however, an application does not seem to be on the cards. Sweden has promised to only apply at the same time as Finland, where almost 60 per cent of people want to stay outside of Nato. What’s more, even if the centre-right parties won the 2018 election they would need to get the opposing parties to agree: Swedish tradition calls for a consensus in defence politics. Consensus may be found on the issue of conscription but it will be harder to reach on Nato.

How different countries do conscription:

  1. Lithuania
    Abolished compulsory national military service in 2008 but reintroduced it last year following the Crimea crisis. Men aged between 19 and 26 now have to serve nine months.
  2. Finland
    Retains its compulsory military service. Men are called in when they turn 18 and serve at least six months; for women it is voluntary.

  3. Norway
    Extended its compulsory military service to include women in 2016, becoming the first Nato country to do so. Yet it only drafts the most motivated and suitable candidates.

Coming full cycle


Over the past few years bicycle superhighways have become big hits in Denmark, the UK and the Netherlands. Now it’s Germany’s turn: the Ruhr region – a collection of cities including Duisburg and Bochum with a population of about five million – has introduced the country’s first. So far only a 5km stretch of the Radschnellweg Ruhr – wide enough for four cyclists side by side – has opened but by 2020 it should extend to more than 100km.

Similar projects are now being considered across the country. “All German metropolises are intensely interested,” says Martin Tönnes, the project’s head of planning. “They understand that as they grow they can’t just depend on cars.”

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