Army Service Could Be the Answer to Europe’s Integration Problem

The EU’s defense forces are struggling to recruit, and immigrants are often eager to serve.

By Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Soldiers from the Foreign Legion march down the Champs Elysees, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background,  in Paris during a rehearsal of the annual Bastille Day military parade on July 10, 2017. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)
Soldiers from the Foreign Legion march down the Champs Elysees, with the Arc de Triomphe in the background, in Paris during a rehearsal of the annual Bastille Day military parade on July 10, 2017. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

France’s Foreign Legion is the stuff of military legend: a band of mostly foreign men serving the French government essentially as mercenaries — and doing so with extraordinary success. Though the legion was formed in the 19th century to police France’s far-flung dominions, it has evolved into an all-purpose combat force. Indeed, thanks to its dependability in combat, the legion has become so useful that the French government is now significantly expanding it. Other European countries should follow France’s lead. All European Union nations need to do more for the Europe’s security — but their armed forces are struggling to find enough new recruits. The answer may be in plain sight; many of these countries have a growing population of young male immigrants who could be an asset to the military.

The French Foreign Legion is bursting at the seams. Last year, the French government announced it would expand its ground forces by 11,000 troops, to a total of 77,000 troops. The Foreign Legion will get one-third of the new posts, giving it a total of 8,900 men, 11 percent of the Army’s total force. The legion has even been given a new regiment, part of which is already serving in Mali, the legion’s chief of staff, Col. Alain Walter, tells Foreign Policy.

That’s a remarkable turn of events for a force that was conceived in 1831 by the French government and staffed by recent immigrants, who were expeditiously dispatched to police assorted colonies. As far as the government was concerned, the Foreign Legion was an efficient way of reducing crowding in the country’s immigrant neighborhoods and simultaneously maintaining order in the country’s imperial dominions.

But despite its unusual beginning and ragtag reputation (some Foreign Legionnaires have previously been in a bit of trouble with the law), the Foreign Legion has established itself as a pillar of French defense. Legion regiments served in the first Gulf War and Afghanistan. In 2013, when the French government decided to intervene in Mali, it also sent a Foreign Legion regiment; it sent another the following year in the Central African Republic.

In all of these conflicts, the legion has not been afraid to take casualties; a Slovak and a Serb serving France were killed in Mali. “We have the same mission, pay, and uniform as the rest of the French Army,” Walter points out. “The difference is just whom we recruit. And many would say that we work and train harder.” (While the soldiers are mostly foreigners, 90 percent of the legion’s officers are French.)

The French model cannot be imported wholesale. Only a small number of countries permit foreigners in their armed forces. In the United States, an estimated 24,000 foreigners serve in the U.S. military; in many cases, doing so puts them on a fast track toward citizenship. In Britain, citizens of Commonwealth countries can take the same path. And although the Spanish Legion once accepted foreigners, today most of its soldiers are Spanish citizens.

But those European countries that can only recruit their own citizens are having trouble filling their ranks. Faced with a shortage of soldiers, Sweden has reintroduced the draft, although this time it’s highly selective, which means only a small percentage of 19-year-olds will be chosen for service. Germany is planning to expand its Bundeswehr to 198,000 troops from the current level of some 180,000, even though Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen acknowledges that the Bundeswehr has an “enormous personnel problem.” Poland, meanwhile, is planning to expand its armed forces from 100,000 to 150,000 (plus 50,000 in the volunteer Territorial Defense Force).

All of this expansion makes sense. But it begs the question: Given the existing recruitment challenges, where are the boots on the ground going to come from? According to the Demographic War Index put together by German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn, in Germany there are only 650 men between the ages of 15 and 19 for every 1,000 men between 55 to 59. In Italy, Spain, Russia, Estonia, and Latvia, the demographic situation is equally troubling. Sweden’s numbers are slightly better, but it still has only 870 male teenagers for every 1,000 men between 55 and 59. Even with women now allowed to serve, the demographic reality is troubling. Germany is considering alleviating the personnel shortage by reducing entrance requirements or admitting EU citizens with specific qualifications; serving soldiers and officers could also be asked to remain longer.

Given this demographic challenge, replicating some aspects of the Foreign Legion model is a promising solution. According to the most recent annual report by Germany’s Federal Statistical Office, there are 10 million foreign men and women living in Germany, approximately 12 percent of the total population. While the Foreign Legion’s soldiers are almost exclusively men, most roles in European armed forces are now open to women as well. The foreigners living in Germany include about 4.3 million men and women from other EU countries, about half of whom are of prime military age — between 20 and 45. There are also nearly 1 million 20 to 45-year-old nationals of countries applying for EU membership. There are also some 300,000 Africans, 140,000 nationals of North and South America, and 1.1 million Asians (including nationals of Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries) in the same age range. Sweden, in turn, is home to 900,000 foreign nationals — nearly 10 percent of the population — of whom nearly 467,000 are aged 20-44. In Poland, 235,000 foreigners currently have permission to work, 193,000 of them Ukrainians.

These immigrants can be a resource to the military, and many would be willing to serve if given the opportunity. “Many of us have done military service in our home countries; when I did mine in Syria, the officers treated us badly,” Mohammed al-Balout, a Syrian who arrived in Sweden as an asylum-seeker four years ago and now works for a local city council assisting newly arrived migrants, tells FP. “But since the Swedish armed forces are much better managed, I’m convinced that many people would be happy to serve.”

The French Foreign Legion accommodates more than 140 nationalities. “It’s like the Tower of Babel,” Col. Walter says. “The share of Europeans is decreasing, probably because they’re used to a more comfortable life. Instead, we have more recruits from poorer countries,” he adds. “It’s hard work making them all feel part of the same organization, but it also means we have good soldiers from all over the world.”

Most armed forces maintain a citizenship requirement for understandable reasons. Citizens tend to feel a certain loyalty to their country, while noncitizens may or may not. Given the deadly equipment soldiers are trained to use, it would be foolish to treat the armed forces as a catchall solution to Europe’s integration woes. But of the several million foreigners between 20 and 45 living in Germany, there are countless loyal, sensible, hard-working men and women. Daniel Yar Hamidi, an Iranian-born professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Boras in Sweden who arrived in the country as an asylum-seeker three decades ago, says, “Because military life is very intense, military units for noncitizens would help those noncitizens learn the rules and customs of their new country.” They would also learn the language faster.

Given the political and military risks associated with ground combat, the French Foreign Legion model may not be an ideal setup for other European countries to replicate. But immigrants can offer considerable benefits to Europe’s stretched militaries in other ways. They could, for example, focus on areas like natural disaster relief, logistics, even United Nations peacekeeping. And given that many of these immigrants are fluent in languages needed on U.N. peacekeeping missions, they’re an even bigger asset. German voters might not accept non-EU nationals serving in the Bundeswehr, says retired Maj. Gen. Walter Spindler, who until last fall commanded the German army’s training command. “But if such a law were passed, it would indeed be possible to have a foreign legion with particular tasks,” he adds. “However, one would have to make sure that these soldiers had the same equipment and training as all the other soldiers, or otherwise it would risk becoming a second-class army.”

Foreigner units also have the potential to double as an incubator for future entrepreneurs and help integrate immigrants into the labor market. “Today’s armed forces are very high-tech, which would give troops in foreigner units extremely useful skills,” notes Yar Hamidi. They would learn leadership skills and gain technical expertise, allowing them to start their own companies. In Israel, 60 percent of the population has done military service — but in the country’s booming high-tech sector, 90 percent of employees have served in the army. “The government would get a much better return on investment than it does through traditional integration assistance to immigrants,” Yar Hamidi argues.

Europe’s need for larger armies is not going to disappear anytime soon; it is likely to grow more acute. At a time when European countries are struggling to integrate large numbers of new immigrants, it would offer a promising career path for the several thousand foreign-born soldiers who are selected to serve and prove to skeptics that far from being a threat to the nation, immigrants are willing to risk their lives to defend it.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw