Policy Proposals Security & Defence

Why European National Militaries Should be Open to all EU Citizens

EU member states could use their human resources more effectively by opening their national armed forces to citizens of other EU member states. In so doing, they would pave the way for more diverse and hence more attractive national armed forces and take a step forward on the way towards a European Army. They would also extend the rights of an increasing number of mobile citizens in the EU. Belgium and Ireland are two examples from which other countries can learn.


EU member states could use their human resources more effectively by opening their national armed forces to citizens of other EU member states. In so doing, they would pave the way for more diverse and hence more attractive national armed forces and take a step forward on the way towards a European Army. They would also extend the rights of an increasing number of mobile citizens in the EU. Belgium and Ireland are two examples from which other countries can learn.


The news magazine Der Spiegel reported in December 2018 that the German Ministry of Defence was mulling over opening up the Bundeswehr to citizens of other EU member states. According to this report, German defence planners were eyeing approx. 500 000 Poles, Italians and Romanians aged between 18 and 40 living in Germany. They hoped for 50 000 additional applications out of this group, which could substantially help to ease the current shortage of about 20 000 soldiers. Berlin’s Ministry of Defence has not issued any decision or official statement since.

This was one very rare occasion for this topic to surface in an EU member state’s public debate. It is all the more surprising, as most European armed forces suffer from significant personnel shortages – a problem that is often overlooked against the backdrop of dysfunctional tanks, aircraft and naval vessels.


Why soldiers matter as much as tanks

Most European armed forces lack between 10 and 15 % of the workforce needed. This shortage is in many cases further aggravated by a dearth of key qualified professionals, such as doctors, paramedics and IT experts. If European allies take their NATO commitments seriously, investing 2 % of GDP in defence hardware will not be adequate. They will also have to develop new strategies for the recruitment and retention of competent soldiers who operate, support and maintain the hardware. One such strategy could be opening national armed forces to EU citizens. As the German numbers indicate, this will probably not solve, but would potentially ease the problem.

However, the German considerations have raised concerns in neighbouring countries who fear that the wage differences, which are even more significant among national militaries than in other labour branches, might lead to a competition for prospective soldiers. Such a competition could see some countries seriously struggling to find military personnel and would eventually weaken European defence capabilities overall. However, the Belgian and Irish examples suggest that the language requirements any applicant has to fulfil, irrespective of his origin, suffice to prevent such competition from occurring. The natural target group is and should be foreign EU nationals who have already lived in a country before applying for service in its armed forces.


How to extend the freedom of movement of workers

Opening national armed forces to EU citizens would not only increase the pool for military recruitment, but also further some fundamental ideas of the European Single Market.

Article 45 TFEU, which lays out the freedom of movement of workers, abolishes any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the member states. However, paragraph 4 of Article 45 TFEU specifies that free movement of workers does not apply to employment in the public sector. Particularly posts involving the exercise of public authority and of responsibility for safeguarding the general interest of the State may be restricted to a country’s own nationals. The Court of Justice of the European Union has illustrated in its past verdicts that it is one thing to employ a foreign citizen in a public railway company, but another thing to accept a foreign national in the police or the military.


What is the Status Quo in Europe?

Hence, the decision to open national armed forces to citizens of other EU countries rests completely on the member states. Currently, 8 out of 28 EU countries accept foreigners in their militaries, but only 2 of them recruit citizens of other EU member states without additional restrictions or requirements.

Special cases are Spain, the United Kingdom and France, whose militaries accept foreigners from their former colonies and some EU member states, or who have established specific units for non-nationals. Citizens of former Spanish colonies in Latin America are eligible for service in the Spanish armed forces, whereas citizens of Commonwealth countries, Malta, Cyprus and Ireland, can serve in the British military. The French Forces Armées have a special branch for foreigners, the famous Foreign Legion, which attracts very few EU citizens, but many soldiers from outside of Europe. However, the regular branches of the French military are strictly reserved for French citizens.

Denmark, Luxembourg and Cyprus do accept other EU nationals in their armed forces, but still discriminate between own nationals and foreigners. In the Danish military, for example, foreigners are not eligible for a career as an officer. In a very similar scheme, EU foreigners who have lived in Luxembourg for at least three years can apply for a career as enlisted soldier or sergeant. Applicants to the armed forces of Cyprus in contrast must even prove that they are at least partially of Cypriot descent.


The pioneers: Belgium and Ireland

The two national armed forces that are really fully open to EU foreigners are the Irish and the Belgian, which makes these cases the most interesting.

Already in 2004, Belgium decided to open its armed forces to other EU and Swiss nationals, long before its military was experiencing any severe shortages of personnel. The key question driving this decision seems to have been “why not?” rather than “why?” and has until today never sparked any public debate. Only a few Belgian soldiers and politicians are at all aware that their country may have a pioneering role in this respect.

Swiss and EU citizens applying to the Belgian military have to fulfil the same requirements as Belgian applicants and must no longer have to fulfil any military obligations such as conscription in their country of citizenship. Today, there are 162 foreigners serving in the Belgian military, representing roughly 0.7 % of the 25 000-strong personnel force. Most of these soldiers are Dutch, French and Italian citizens, which is not surprising since these are the most common nationalities among EU foreigners living in Belgium.

Non-Belgian citizens are treated equally to Belgians in the Belgian military and are regularly deployed in missions abroad. There are no reports about problems or incidents related to the nationality of Belgian servicemen.

The Irish armed forces have adopted a very similar scheme. In order to apply for service in the Irish military, an applicant would need to be either a national of the European Economic Area or a recognised refugee. As the Irish military does not record the nationality of their soldiers statistically, there are no numbers available. For the purpose of this brief, however, the Irish example is of lesser interest since Ireland is not a NATO member, does not participate in military missions abroad and possesses a relatively small military.

Both the Belgian and the Irish armed forces are very small compared to other militaries in the EU. Still, there are some lessons that can be drawn from their examples. Firstly, there was no public outcry against the decision to recruit foreign nationals. This may of course be different in the context of other member states’ societies. Nevertheless, secondly, people in Ireland and Belgium quickly became used to having other EU citizens serving with their national insignia on their sleeves and today consider it a very normal thing. This was presumably also possible, because, thirdly, there have been no reported cases of treason, espionage, misconduct or disloyalty related to nationality.


What is the recruitment potential?

What would be the recruitment potential for European armed forces if they accepted not only domestic but all EU citizens? There are currently about 17 million EU citizens living in another EU country. How many of them would potentially serve abroad depends on various factors: on the proportion of these 17 million within the eligible age bracket (commonly 18-25); on the propensity of these Europeans to apply for a military career; and on the specific qualifications that these citizens could bring into the respective national armed forces. There are very few data available to make accurate predictions on these factors. Moreover, the results might be very different from one country to another.

However, if all European armed forces had the same share of foreigners in their ranks as the Belgian military, they could expect to have some 10 000 soldiers more than today (based on 1 600 000 million soldiers in the EU). Although this is only a rough estimate based on a very small case, it indicates that there is some potential, however limited. This will further increase as the number of mobile citizens rises.

However, these considerations should not overlook secondary effects. Armed forces that are composed of citizens of different EU countries are more diverse. Hence, as an employer they might be more appealing to women and to minorities, such as domestic citizens with a migratory background who are usually less likely to apply for military service.


Why only Europeans?

Having said this, why should EU member states not use the full potential of its residents and open its armed forces to all foreign citizens, or at least to all citizens of NATO members?

Firstly, there are practical considerations to take into account. Applicants for military service need to undergo a thorough security screening, which requires a criminal record and other information difficult to access from abroad. For these reasons, the Belgian Armed Forces only accept applicants from countries with which certain documentation standards and information-sharing agreements have been established, i.e. Switzerland and the EU. It seems advisable for other countries to follow this example for said reasons.

Secondly, there are political and military implications. No country would like to see its own citizens on the opposing side of a military conflict and few countries would in return like to rely on soldiers that are still citizens of an opposing country. The law of the Netherlands even refers to such scenarios: Dutch citizens are allowed to serve in foreign armed forces as long as it does not involve them in military conflict with the Netherlands and their allies. If a state chooses which countries’ citizens should be eligible to serve in its armed forces, it should therefore look to its closest allies. It seems highly unlikely that two EU member states will find themselves on opposing sides of a military conflict. In a NATO context, however, this assessment already appears dubious, with Turkey pursuing goals in the Syrian war that are contrary to those of its Western allies.

These practical and political implications explain why European national armed forces should primarily open up to citizens of other EU member states and not necessarily beyond the EU borders.


What is the opposing opinion?

There is nevertheless firm opposition among some stakeholders to the general idea of opening armed forces to foreigners, even if they are EU citizens. The German debate is again a telling example in this respect.

In Germany, conservative members of Parliament as well as the Bundeswehrverband, the soldiers’ labour union, argue that German soldiers swear an oath to serve their country loyally and to defend the freedom of the German people. They wonder how a foreign citizen could credibly be able to make such a commitment. Critics fear that foreign soldiers would just be mercenaries and that the Bundeswehr would lose its special character as the army of citizens, deeply anchored in a democratic society. Moreover, foreign nationals living in Germany can not participate in national elections. This means that, as soldiers, they could not vote for the same members of the Bundestag who would decide on their deployment.

With a critical view of the current reality of military deployment in Europe, it is hard to see how serving Germany and defending the freedom of the German people differs from serving Europe and defending the freedom of the European people. The German armed forces, to begin with this example, currently operate in 13 missions abroad. None of these missions is purely German and all of them, irrespective of being led by the UN, NATO or the EU, are comprised of teams of several EU member states.

Any German soldier who is reassuring the Baltic states and deterring Russia as part of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania is serving Germany as much as Hungary. Any Italian soldier who is helping to prevent pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean in the framework of Operation Atalanta is serving Italy as much as Finland.  Any French soldier who trains and advises the military of Mali as part of the EU training mission is serving France as much as Portugal. All the soldiers on these missions are essentially European soldiers.

With this European dimension in mind, EU citizens living in another member state could even serve their home country by serving in the armed forces of their country of residence. They would be very different from contractors or mercenaries, since their service would be meaningful – to them and to their host society.

However, it would indeed be desirable for soldiers to be able to elect the Parliament that is deploying them. Nevertheless, rather than using this argument to restrict the rights of 17 million EU citizens living abroad by not accepting them in national armed forces, it should rather be used to consider an extension of their rights by redefining the eligibility criteria for national elections.

Opening national armed forces to all EU citizens would constitute another step towards the long-term goal of a European Army, or, to be more modest, a more deeply integrated defence cooperation, by using human resources more effectively and extending European citizens’ rights at the same time.

Prussian army reformer Scharnhorst famously said: “All citizens of the State are its natural-born defenders”. If more European countries followed the examples of Ireland and Belgium, they could rephrase this sentence: “All citizens of Europe are its natural-born defenders.”


Sebastian Vagt

European Affairs Manager

FNF Expert Hub for Security Political Dialogue