Conscription Referendum: The Third Option

In the Conscription Referendum, Austria chose solidarity

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | February 2013

On 2 January, Austrians cast their ballots on a first-ever national referendum on the military, choosing whether to switch to an all-volunteer professional army, a Berufsheer, or maintain conscription for all young men 18 to 35, with the option of alternative service, or Zivildienst.

When all the votes were in on the non-binding referendum, nearly 60% of the voters chose to keep the obligatory military service (Wehrpflicht), the proposal of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). This was a powerful statement given recent gains in support for the Berufsheer, proposed by the Social Democrats (SPÖ), in the days leading up to the election.

Even more interesting, however, were the exit polls revealing the motivations behind the vote. Here. a full three-quarters (74%) reported voting for conscription in order to preserve the Zivildienst.

It seems counter intuitive – particularly as the reform proposal of the SPÖ included a renewal of the alternative service as a voluntary paid year, open to both men and women. Still, it’s an interesting message to young people: To serve our country we ask you not to bear arms, but to care for the needy and be ready for national disasters.

In effect, there was an election between two alternatives, and the voters chose a third: Austrians spoke out for a universal National Service.

This was a vote for solidarity. This was a vote that said that it matters to join together as a society to address our common needs. And that most Austrians don’t see these needs as military. The needs that seem most pressing are those of families and communities, help with health care and social services, in fires, floods, blizzards or avalanches.

It was also, by implication, a vote of confidence in the European Union, in which Austrians apparently feel safe enough not to need a standing army.

As the European financial crisis drags on and the pressures on the Monetary Union strain relations between member states, the idea of social solidarity in the EU has taken some heavy hits. Angry street protests against falling wages and staggering unemployment in Greece, Spain, and elsewhere echoed in the resentment in wealthy northern countries at having to foot the bill for ailing economies in the south.

Still, what unites Europe seems stronger than what divides it. In repeated surveys on EU identity, it has been the sense of shared values, of democracy, fairness, of social market economies and the welfare state, that have been listed as defining what it means to be European. As recently as autumn 2012, Eurobarometer surveys show trust in the EU growing 2% over six months to 33%, the largest rise since 2008, and that trust in the EU greater that that in both national governments (27%) and parliaments (28%).

With our perennial scepticism, it is interesting to note that Austrians agreed overwhelmingly (82%) that EU countries will have to "work more closely together" to overcome the financial crisis, and most agreed that the Union will come out at the end stronger that before.

So now what? Whether voting for obligatory service or a professional army, nearly everyone wants reform. So proposals are flying around, including a list of "12 Points" from the 2003 Reform Commission, some of which seemed so ludicrous to Upper Austrian commander Kurt Raffetseder that he reported feeling "dizzy".

"This is all old hat," Raffetseder complained to the Austrian daily Der Standard. "It’s nothing new to have sports programmes or for recruits to do a First Aid course," picking two of the more popular proposals. Still, figuring what skills should be mastered and where they should be applied will be the task for the months to come.


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