Austrians to buck trend and keep conscription

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Austrians have voted to keep military conscription, bucking a trend towards replacing conscripts with professional armies in Western Europe that began with the end of the Cold War.

The neutral nation that once stood at the frontier between the Warsaw Pact and Nato yesterday voted 60 per cent in favour of maintaining the draft, which is seen as binding civil society to the military and instilling a sense of citizenship in young men.

The result is a blow to Chancellor Werner Faymann’s Social Democrats, who had argued a smaller, professional force would be more suited to modern military reality, more cost-efficient and fairer to young people.

The 45,00-strong Austrian armed forces fight no wars but are active in international peacekeeping, especially in the former Yugoslavia and the Golan Heights, and are also highly visible in dealing with domestic natural catastrophes such as floods.

Much of Western Europe has scrapped compulsory military service in the last two decades. Germany phased it out in 2011, following France, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and others who have switched to voluntary forces. Britain scrapped conscription in 1960.

Experts had argued that Austria, where six months in the military or nine months of community service are still compulsory for all 18-year-old men, should follow suit.

Many voters were swayed by warnings from emergency services organisations such as the Red Cross, who had said they would not be able to cope without the 14,000 young men who opt for community service each year.