Darabos eyes new peace missions as conscription debate intensifies

A statement by Social Democratic (SPÖ) Defence Minister Norbert Darabos has fuelled speculations Austria would contribute in more international peace-keeping missions in the future.Looking back on 50 years of international engagement, the minister said today (Weds) he “cannot rule out” Austria will participate in peace-keeping missions in Africa. Austrian troops were sent to Chad in the past two years to help restore interior peace in the war-shattered country.Darabos, however, ruled out Austrian soldiers will participate in the United Nations’ (UN) engagement in Lebanon. People’s Party (ÖVP) Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger caused a row within the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition recently by suggesting Austria should join the UN mission.Austria is a neutral country by constitution since the end of post-war occupation by allied troops ended in 1955. The country’s forces have, however, been participating in various international peace missions in Kosovo, the Golan Heights and other insecure areas.Federal President Heinz Fischer stressed today Austria’s neutral state and its engagements were no contradiction. He announced: “Austria’s reputation as a loyal and reliable partner has been strengthened.”Fischer claimed the international peace-keeping mission in western Balkan “would have been impossible without Austria”.Darabos said about the Austrian engagement in Bosnia and Kosovo: “I’m convinced we’ll successfully end this mission. We’ll stay as long as we have to.”The defence minister warned it would be a “fatal political mistake” to pull out of the still insecure region.Around 90,000 Austrian soldiers have participated in 75 different peace missions abroad during the past 50 years. Forty-nine lost their lives. Darabos said around 1,000 Austrian soldiers were currently abroad heading or participating in international peace-keeping initiatives in 11 countries.The announcements by Darabos and Fischer come as Austria is entangled in a heated discussion over its mandatory military service.Greens MP Peter Pilz and a string of opinion leaders have claimed the current conscription service was a relic of the past and must be scrapped. Pilz revealed plans to organise a referendum being held on the issue, claiming the law was a money sink.The Austrian army consists of around 16,000 professional soldiers and a further 9,000 civil servants. Around 25,000 Austrian men aged 18 or 19 are forced to serve a six-month obligatory service after finishing school or a traineeship.Just seven of the European Union’s (EU) 27 members still have a conscription system.The Austrian government spends around 2.1 billion Euros a year on the country’s army. The figure makes just 0.79 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The vast majority of other European nations spend significantly more on their army than Austria.A growing number of Austrians nevertheless want the army to be changed into a smaller, more flexible, fully professional troop. Researchers are at odds over the issue after some studies claimed such a move would come expensive, while others suggest Austria would save a lot of money by getting rid of conscription.Newspaper columnists claimed the current ruling would not just steal young men’s time, but also harm Austria’s economic power since men serving conscription are kept from boosting GDP by working in their regular jobs.Darabos has so far, however, ruled out any kind of change to the law during his reign. The defence minister claimed the army would struggle fulfilling its duty to help Austrians affected by natural disasters like floods if it was robbed of conscripts.Fischer – a former SPÖ whip – claimed the mandatory service scheme has been “tried and tested” over the past decades, while Darabos described the Austrian regulations as “excellent”.Meanwhile, Darabos faces attack from some army chiefs who claim the minister would put too much focus on emergency operations within Austria and neglect the army’s other activities at the same time.The minister recently hit out at his critics, explaining he did not mind being “identified” with his support of post-disaster operations. Darabos added he could imagine “some generals” were “irritated” by this policy.”The army’s domestic work is dominated by (…) the theoretical case of defending the country and operations in case of catastrophes. The Cold War has been over for a long time and our neighbouring states are all members of the EU,” he told weekly magazine profil.Speaking about ÖVP Finance Minister Josef Pröll’s accusations Darabos was “lacking a concept”, he argued: “I was ordered to make cuts of 520 million Euros in my ministry (until 2013). Such a cost-cutting concept cannot be developed within two months.”