Saxony’s Minister-President Michael Kretschmer, of the conservative CDU, said holding a referendum could help to show what voters really think about young people being obligated to support their country through national service.
According to a report in Bild on Monday, Kretschmer wants the re-introduction of compulsory service. He said conscription could help to “meet both the social and defence challenges of our country”.
What is conscription?
Military conscription was abolished in 2011 after 55 years because the government at the time said there was no longer any need for it.
Before 2011, all young men were obligated to either serve in the German armed forces – the Bundeswehr – or spend a limited period of time performing an alternative service in civilian areas, such as emergency management or medical care.
Currently, the Bundeswehr consists only of career soldiers and long-term contract troopers, although the army still offers an option of short-term paid military service to young volunteers.
Why are they talking about it now?
On Friday, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Secretary General of the CDU, opened a debate about whether Germany should reintroduce a one-year conscription or alternative community service, which would be for both men and women over 18.
Kramp-Karrenbauer said she had been touring the country and meeting CDU members to discuss ideas, which would be presented at the CDU's party conference in December. The subject of mandatory service is an important topic with the conservative party's base, which fears the loss of social cohesion.
The politician pledged to “very intensively” discuss military service and mandatory conscription, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).
Kramp-Karrenbauer also told FAZ she did not expect a simple reinstating of the military draft, but did not include specific details. Kramp-Karrenbauer later said on Twitter: “There are many possible ways to serve.”
The debate comes following fears of the military service being unable to fill its ranks. In recent years politicians have been debating how they can ease this issue.
Is there support for it?
On Monday, the federal government said that it had no intention of re-introducing compulsory military service at this stage. Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen also poured cold water on the idea, saying that it would be hard to integrate volunteer soldiers into a professional army whose training involves years of experience.
It's a mixed picture of support across the different political parties. Former CSU Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who had initiated the abolition of military service, warned of “exorbitant costs” in funding the programme.
“The necessary funding for up to 700,000 young people a year would bring significant cuts in other areas. Not least in the equipment of the Bundeswehr,” he said.
Meanwhile, the defence policy spokesman of the SPD parliamentary group, Fritz Felgentreu, said he saw considerable legal difficulties. “Forced service is illegal under European law,” he told Die Welt. Whether a legally compliant implementation was possible, he said, was “completely open”.
Felgentreu said he could understand where the debate is coming from. However, “it is less about filling staff shortages than questions of civic consciousness and social cohesion,” he said.
There are also advocates in the FDP in contrast to party leader Christian Lindner, who has rejected the idea of reintroducing a duty of service.
Bremen FDP faction leader Lencke Steiner told Bild: “I am personally for a mandatory year, whether it's conscription or a social year. It is important to take responsibility early and to learn to stand for others.”
The Left and Green Party oppose the idea.
Is this debate anything to do with the AfD?
The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) has come out in support of reviving conscription. It may be that the CDU party's high profile debate is linked to clawing back voters from the AfD.
The idea of reinstating the military conscription is very popular among AfD supporters. A recent online poll showed 60.6% of supporters were “strongly in favour” of the idea.
Meanwhile, according to a poll published by the survey centre Civey, Germans in general also support the draft. Following responses by 5,046 people between May and August, 55.6% of people are in favour of the idea, while 39.6% are against it.
What happens now?
The CDU will debate the issue at their party conference in December and will decide what steps to take following their discussions.