Why are European armies struggling to recruit soldiers?

'Gebirgsjaeger' mountain troops Bundeswehr soldiers take part in an oath-taking ceremony in Munich, Germany, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023.
'Gebirgsjaeger' mountain troops Bundeswehr soldiers take part in an oath-taking ceremony in Munich, Germany, Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
By Giulia Carbonaro
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European countries' efforts to strengthen their armies in the face of the increased threat from Russia have clashed against young Europeans' unwillingness to join the armed forces.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed European countries to increase their military spending and strengthen their defence, as they scramble to reverse the shrinking of their armies that has occurred over the past decade or so.

But their efforts have met a huge challenge: a lack of recruits willing to join their military forces.

Despite new investment and a recent recruitment push, Germany recently announced that its troop numbers fell slightly last year. The country’s defence ministry said earlier this month that its army - the Bundeswehr - shrank by about 1,500 troops in 2023, for a total of around 181,500 men and women by the end of the year. The Bundeswehr’s plan is to increase its ranks to 203,000 troops by 2031.

The UK also recently admitted it’s struggling to find recruits, with the country’s Ministry of Defence saying that 5,800 more people left the forces than joined them in 2023. The UK Defence Journal writes that the army has not met its recruitment targets every year since 2010.

“The problem is one that all European countries share - including France, Italy, Spain,” Vincenzo Bove, professor of political science at Warwick University in UK, told Euronews. “I don’t think there’s one country that’s spared from it.”

According to Bove, it’s unclear when exactly attracting recruits became a problem for European armies. “From my understanding, it started at least over 10 years ago in countries like the UK,” Bove said. “In the US, it started at least 20 years ago.”

What’s certain is that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has added pressure on European countries to solve the issue. But why are European countries struggling to recruit soldiers?

1. Young people’s values have changed

According to Bove, the ideological distance between society at large and military forces has gotten wider in recent years.

“If you take a random sample of young Europeans, they are ideologically very far from a sample of soldiers from the same country in terms of how they see society, their aspirations, what they want to do,” Bove said. “And this distance is growing over time.”

Bove mentioned that recent surveys have shown that young civilians are overwhelmingly against wars, against increasing spending on the military and against military operations abroad; they are also more individualistic and less patriotic than those serving in the military forces.

While there’s no clear explanation for why this gap is getting wider, Bove said this might be related to the end of conscription and the fact that young people are no longer exposed to the military, with most of them not even knowing someone working in the armed forces.

Dr Sophy Antrobus, Research Fellow at the Freeman Air and Space Institute at King's College London, agreed with Bove, telling Euronews that the smaller the forces get, the less civilians actually see them. "In most parts of the country [the UK], you hardly see any people in uniform, there's not that awareness of the military as an available career."

2. Unappealing salary

Another reason is that working in the military has become a job like any other, Bove said, and the armed forces are competing with the private sector to get recruits - but they’re at a disadvantage.

“Because of the challenges in the military sector, the quality of life, relocations, international assignments, uncertainty and the possibility of dying, you need to pay very high salaries to convince people to apply and join the armed forces,” Bove said. “Given that they don’t, young Europeans would rather accept a job in the civilian sector.”

Talking about the UK specifically, Antrobus - who served in the Royal Air Forces for 20 years, including in Iraq and Afghanistan - added that there isn't been much investment in the army, and the state of accommodation for the armed forces “is pretty bad,” she said. 

“Application times for getting in the armed forces are also quite long too, and the younger generations - particularly now - expect things to happen quickly. If there’s a job that comes out in the public sector in the meantime, that's a more attractive option than waiting around for the army to give you an option,” she said.

3. Demographic changes

European armed forces are also struggling to find potential applicants as the population of the continent is ageing and shrinking. 

Bove argues that the size of the armed forces has already decreased to adapt to this change, with the British, Italian and French armies, for example, now being “pretty much half the size it used to be 10 years or 20 years ago.” 

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What a smaller pool of applicants might mean for European armies now is that the quality of recruits accepted might not be up to the same strict standards armed forces have imposed for decades - which could in turn allow for dodgy individuals like neo-Nazi sympathisers to slip in.

According to Antrobus, there’s also a problem of “health and fitness” with young people. In the US, she said, there are more people in the age group between 17 and 24 who are largely unfit, with obesity being a big issue. If this trend continues, the armies will have nobody to recruit by 2035-2040.”

What future for the European armies?

European armies are a bit in “panic mode,” Bove said, as they scramble to find new recruits in the face of the increased threat from Moscow.

 “Immigration could be the answer,” Bove said, citing that countries like Spain, France and Portugal are already considering ways for immigrants to join the army and get citizenship after a few years in the forces.

“That’s probably the best way forward,” Bove said. “Because you can’t force people to fight for you and join the armed forces, and people are not going accept a return of conscription.” 

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“It's an intractable problem, to be honest,” Antrobus said. “It all starts with the politics, the political will and interest.” A solution to European armies’ recruitment process, Antrobus said, would involve things like “making the services more attractive, pay a bit better, certainly improving living standards - and it’s just not high enough in the political agenda compared to the cost of living and the economy.”

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