Debate heats up over Swiss army system

The Swiss army is looking in which direction to go Keystone

Comments earlier this week by the defence minister, Samuel Schmid, have sparked much debate over the future of Switzerland’s army.

This content was published on August 5, 2004 - 12:20

Schmid broke a taboo by suggesting that the militia system could one day be scrapped.

He said that budgetary pressures meant that further reforms to the army could not be ruled out.

This is a view shared by the centre-left Social Democrat parliamentarian, Barbara Haering, who told swissinfo that debate over the future of the army could not be put off any longer.

“There were many of us who felt at the time of discussions on the Army XXI reform [approved in May last year] that the issue should be debated one day or another,” said Haering, a member of the parliamentary security commission.

The Constitution is very clear on the subject of the militia system: in article 58, it states that the Swiss army “is organised fundamentally according to the principle of a militia army”.

And in article 59, it states that “every Swiss national male is liable for military service”, even if “the law foresees civilian service as a replacement”.

Death of the citizen soldier?

If Switzerland were to replace its militia army with a professional army, it could not do so without a nationwide vote to change the Constitution.

And rejection of the concept of the “citizen soldier” is unlikely to pass without plenty of people gritting their teeth.

Schmid’s comments have already provoked Ulrich Schlüer, a parliamentarian from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, to accuse the defence minister of “breaking his word”.

Karl Haltiner, a professor at the military academy of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, admits that Schmid is playing with fire.

“Doing something for your country is a tradition that’s more anchored in Switzerland than in many other places,” he said.

Haltiner believes a professional army would therefore not be the right solution for Switzerland, and instead suggests a “militia army made up of volunteers”.

Soldiers would be asked to sign a contract for five or ten years but that would not imply that they would be on active service all that time.

Army of volunteers

Under Haltiner’s model, these voluntary soldiers would, like now, have several months of basic training followed by annual repeat courses.

And conscription could, of course, be reintroduced if the country came under threat.

“If you look at the 30 countries of Europe, half of them have already shelved conscription, ten are currently discussing it and only five, including Switzerland, have not begun debate on the issue,” said Haltiner.

Barbara Haering is not in favour of a professional army either. She too suggests a model based on voluntary service.

But she maintains that more emphasis should be put on the second part of article 59 to offer everyone a choice between military and civilian service.

“But we must be careful that civilian service would not upset the labour market. And there must be some thought given to the role of women,” she said.

Women are not compelled to do service at present but can join the army “voluntarily”.

10,000 motivated men

How many soldiers, professional or voluntary, does Switzerland need? According to Haltiner, it all depends on what the country wants to do with its army.

“If it’s a question of lending a hand to the police, helping out in a catastrophe or going on missions to help maintain peace abroad, 10,000 men would be amply sufficient,” he said.

The question is, though, how many men would be tempted to join up if obligatory conscription were shelved.

Haltiner argues that there would have to be some good incentives to motivate them, such as a good salary, but also some social benefits. He suggests offering soldiers free health insurance for life.

This solution would certainly be more costly to the state, but it would be more advantageous to employers, who currently pay the salaries of their employees when they are on military service.

Schmid has said he will present the issue to his fellow cabinet ministers this autumn.

It will then go to both houses of parliament, where Barbara Haering is convinced that decisions will have to be taken before the end of the current legislative period in 2007.

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez

In brief

In the 30 countries of Europe, 15 have already shelved conscription, but could reintroduce it in case of war.

Ten other countries are currently discussing the issue.

General and obligatory conscription exists only in Switzerland, Austria and the Scandinavian countries.

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