KUNGSANGEN, Sweden – For many young Europeans, a post-high-school “gap year” has become a rite of passage. Instead of proceeding straight to work or college, hundreds of thousands of newly graduated high school students enjoy a year of travel to see the world and celebrate their newfound freedom.
But a growing number of those young men and women face a much different post-graduation interlude: military service.
After the Cold War, many European countries abolished conscription, considering it an expensive relic. But with Russia resurgent and tensions on the rise, mandatory military service is making a comeback across the continent. This year, Sweden drafted its first new class of conscripts since abolishing the draft in 2010. Lithuania has also reinstated conscription, and Norway began drafting women for the first time in 2016.
Meanwhile, lawmakers in Italy, Romania and Germany have debated reintroducing some form of conscription in recent months. French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing for the introduction of a national service program that would include a military option and last between one month and a year. And there are no signs that Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Cyprus, Greece, Austria or Switzerland will get rid of their conscription systems anytime soon.
“A key reason for the revival of the draft is a changing security situation in Europe, especially after the Russian annexation of Crimea four years ago,” said Elisabeth Braw, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. “But there’s also an economic argument: It has been very hard to recruit for the armed forces, especially in northern European countries, where the economy is doing well.”
In some nations, including Germany and France, bringing back mandatory national service for both men and women is also being discussed as a possible way to integrate migrants into increasingly polarized societies. Estonia officially considers its draft as a way to integrate the country’s Russian minority.
But in Sweden, the draft is still fundamentally about security. “Our military is not an integration school,” said Ewa Skoog Haslum, the deputy vice chancellor of the Swedish Defense University,
The country’s new draft system is highly selective. Out of the nearly 100,000 Swedes who turned 18 this year, recruiters picked only 4,000 men and women to serve. “The conscripts who have just been selected are a lot more skilled than those who joined the previous conscription model that was in place until eight years ago,” said Lars Fresker, a spokesman for the Swedish officers’ union. The number of drafted recruits will eventually reach 8,000 a year.
Sweden hopes that a high ratio of conscripts will opt for a job in the military later on, but officials emphasized that the training should also benefit those who end up choosing civilian careers. Norway and Finland are pursuing a similar approach, with options specifically tailored for computer programmers or telecommunications specialists. “The Finns don’t waste the time of their conscripts because they try to make the training as useful as possible,” Braw said.
The Swedish military says that few recruits object to being drafted. And at Kungsangen, the base where the Swedish military trains most of its draftees, several soldiers agreed that being drafted felt like a positive step.
“It’s fun to have a purpose. School was just too relaxed for me. Now, I have a tight schedule, which is a welcome challenge,” said 19-year-old Sally Granditsky, formerly a student at a Stockholm design school. She conceded that she probably would never have joined the military without the draft – “I think I would have been too lazy to apply,” she said – but could now see herself staying and becoming an officer.
Viktor Arridsson, 19, had not yet decided whether to stay in the military, but he said that “the draft teaches us lessons which people who don’t do it miss out on. You get to know yourself.”
“It’s good that they brought it back,” he said.