Compulsory military service dies out in Europe as Switzerland goes for referendum

GENEVA (AFP) - Obligatory military service has been progressively abolished in most European countries, though Switzerland looks certain to maintain the draft in a referendum on Sunday.

Compulsory since the start of the 19th century in most European countries, conscription armies have gradually been replaced by professional forces since the 1960s.

In Western Europe, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Austria, Greece and Cyprus are the only other countries to have kept their system of conscription.

Led by Britain and Luxembourg in the 1960s and followed in the 1990s and 2000s by nations including Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland and Germany, successive European nations have abandoned the call-up.

When it comes to those that maintain conscription, Norway has gone against the tide and is set to extend it to women, in line with a decision by the parliament voted last June.

This measure, passed in the name of equality between the sexes and expected to enter into force in 2015, is easy to exchange for civilian service.

In Finland, military service is compulsory for stints of between six and 12 months. Civilian service, which is available for conscientious objectors, is not encouraged as it is twice as long as military service.

In Denmark military service is still in theory obligatory, but out of nearly 5,000 people in service in 2012, 95.8 percent were volunteers, with the remaining 4.2 percent being drawn out of a hat.

Estonia also maintains obligatory military service for a period of eight to 11 months.

In Austria, citizens overwhelmingly voted by 59.8 percent in January to maintain conscription. Some 22,000 every year carry out six months of military service. Austrians who do not want to do military service can do nine months of civilian service.

In Cyprus and Greece conscription has also been maintained, while its duration has been progressively been reduced to 9-12 months.

Sunday's referendum in Switzerland marks the latest attempt by anti-military campaigners to use the Alpine country's system of direct democracy to scrap conscription.

Past efforts to do so, and even to abolish the army outright, have failed, however. Polls show that around two-thirds of Swiss voters will support the status quo this time.