The EU says it is hoping to strengthen its cooperation with Balkan countries in its efforts to curb irregular migration. However, some find that deals with countries like North Macedonia are somewhat one-sided, revealing that the EU is flexing its muscle in some of Europe's most impoverished regions.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to the eastern European nation to witness the signing of the deal in the North Macedonian capital, Skopje. North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski was also in attendance.
Von der Leyen said the signing of the document moved North Macedonia closer to the European Union. During her four-day tour of the region, von der Leyen is hoping to strengthen the cooperation between the EU's external borders agency Frontex and the Western Balkans.
Many refugees and migrants continue to trek from Greece through North Macedonia and into the republics of the former Yugoslavia in the hope of reaching Western Europe.
Read more: Why has the Balkan migrant route become more active again?
Equal - on paper
Von der Leyen stressed that the EU and North Macedonia were dealing with each other "on an equal footing," highlighting the fact that the agreement had been translated into the Macedonian language.
However, there is a power imbalance between the two parties not just in terms of size and influence but also when it comes to dependency issues. North Macedonia is far closer to the frontline of the migration situation across Europe than affluent EU members like Germany or France, and nations throughout the Balkans rely on EU support.
Earlier, von der Leyen pledged €80 million in support for North Macedonia to "help address the impact of the high energy prices." This is part of a bigger package designed to benefit the entire region to the tune of €500 million in total.
Meanwhile, some observers have commented that the EU needs to keep non-members in Europe sweet, as euroskepticism in the Balkans could result in Russia's influence growing. Traditional ties with the Soviet Union mean that many people in Eastern Europe regard themselves as more aligned with the superpower anyway.
Geopolitics on a small scale
Most recently, Serbia has come under pressure from its EU partners to tighten up its visa arrangements in order to prevent potential migrants arriving legally and then making onward journeys without the correct papers towards Western Europe.
North Macedonia now joins the league of countries working closely with Frontex, conducting joint operations to curb irregular migration.
However, as Frontex faces mounting accusations and evidence of its tacit support of, and involvement in, illegal pushback of migrants and refugees in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, cooperation deals with the EU border agency might begin to look less attractive to future partners.
Read more: EU parliament refuses to discharge Frontex over 'grave irregularities'