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2004-06-21

Lay down your arms? 

So here we are back again, with an agreement on the EU constitution but not on a new president of the commission (fellow blogger British Politics hates EU summits), another FPÖ minister gone and more to follow [DE], a new chairwoman of the mighty Green party in the Vienna municipality [DE] (disclaimer: I know her from student days), but nevertheless football ruling the airwaves.

I ignore all this tasty blogging stuff and force myself to talk about a topic I don't particularly enjoy, namely Austrian defense policy. A multi-party reform commission has recently completed its report to the government on options for reforming the Austrian military. The army is suffering a bit of a legitimacy crisis after having been completely surrounded by EU member states, in addition to the threats of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. What a pity. I still remember the liaison officer visiting our high-school in 1989 (he became a general soon after) who tried to convince us that all this Perestrojka and Glasnost bullshit was a ruse by the communists who wanted to corrupt the West's readiness to fight, in preparation for what could only be a Soviet master-plan for an invasion. Teenage anarchist that I was, one of the political issues dearest to my heart at that time was the abolishment of the army. It was an important issue, after all I was facing the alternative of a) the draft, or b) a humiliating ceremony in front of a commission that interviewed conscientious objectors and based its decisions on recruitment requirements of the military. I managed to sit the commission out - as a student at university, I could delay my service until the much-hated commission was abolished. In return, civilian service was lengthened from 8 to 12 months, which I spent applying my IT knowledge to a noble cause. Ah, history.

Based on the recommendations of the reform commission, the conservative defense minister said yesterday [DE] that the draft may be abolished by 2007, depending on requirements for border control forces. You must know that in the last years most drafted young men have been receiving a training in racism by being stationed at the borders with a mission to catch illegal immigrants. But as the new EU members ratify the Schengen treaties, this will become obsolete. The consequence, a professional army, has long been opposed by the social-democrats, who have historical memories of the use of the army against them in the civil war of 1934(!), but it seems that the idea has now become acceptable to them. Troup strength will be reduced by half, to 50,000.

Remains the question what these troups will do, who they can defend the country against. The minister conceded that tank forces are not really the mandate of the day, and they will be reduced in relation to 'highly movable, well-armoured vehicles'. As the claim that Austria needs a defensive military force has become untenable, it seems that the remnants of the Austrian military will be transformed into a force for rapid deployment across the globe - for peace-keeping or for offensive missions, you choose which. To be fair, military spending levels in Austria lag behind those of most European countries, so the Austrian offensive capability is likely to remain very limited. But my concern from those good old teenage days still lingers: is the Austrian political system to be trusted as a power controlling a military force? Back then my answer was no, based on the role of Austria in WWII. My second answer was that given Austria's history and its current status as a country with an underdeveloped military, there could be a vision where Austria turned into an example of demilitarisation and pacifism in the middle of Europe. I still like that second answer, but I have to admit that I have become sceptical about the benefits of 'special roles' that Austria assumes. It should never be allowed to step outside the European frames of reference - if there is to be a special Austrian military policy, at least it needs to be co-ordinated with the European one.


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