The Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit that will take place in November in Vilnius, Lithuania, is already generating buzz. Set to be a major milestone in the EU’s relations with the Eastern Partnership states, the summit is expected to reach a crescendo with the signing of an Association Agreement with Ukraine. The announcement of the end of talks on or even the initialing of similar agreements with Moldova and Georgia may be additional high notes.

Yet, the Vilnius Summit may well end up as just another photo opportunity for the EU and EaP leaders. And the EU will be solely responsible for that.

The situation in the region does not look good.

Whether Ukraine is willing to meet all the EU’s conditions for the signing of an agreement before the summit is very uncertain. With EU member states divided over Ukraine’s relationship with the union, the Poles and the Lithuanians—among the most vocal advocates of Ukraine in the EU—are unlikely to get consensus among the 28 to sign the agreement at the summit if the Ukrainians do not deliver.

In Moldova, a pro-European coalition fell apart, and even if a new coalition is formed relatively quickly, the political landscape in the country remains unstable.

Initial concerns within the EU about the tactics used by the government of Bidzina Ivanishvili in Georgia seemed to be calming down. But there are fresh worries about the political nature of the prosecution of former government officials. There is also no guarantee that the country will not slip into another period of political instability as it approaches its October presidential election.

Although the EU did not create the region’s problems, it did set unattainable goals and ignored the reality on the ground. But that does not mean the summit has to be a failure. Success should not be measured by the signing of agreements alone.

For the Vilnius Summit to be successful, the EU member states will have to remember what Albert Einstein once said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” The EU will have to rethink what a successful Eastern Partnership would really mean, how to make engagement with governments work, and what additional investment in the region is needed.

If the EU takes these steps, the summit may be a defining moment in the EU’s relations with its Eastern neighbors. It may also set the course for more effective EU policy in the region for years to come.

What an Effective Eastern Partnership Initiative Means

The Eastern Partnership initiative came into existence in the first place because of the efforts of the Poles, Czechs, and Swedes. It was a big success for the EU. A hard-won initiative, it created a special pocket for EU relations with six post-Soviet states—quite an incredible development given that at least half of the EU’s members were and still are not interested in the Eastern neighborhood.

The EaP was a response to Ukraine’s, Moldova’s, and Georgia’s European aspirations. Helping these countries reform and bringing them closer to the EU was the main goal of this initiative. Coupled with increased financial support from the EU, the Association Agreement was supposed to be an instrument for achieving that.

Today the goal of the EaP seems to have shifted to saving the partner countries from their misery and keeping them away from Russia. And—thanks to the “help” of some EU member states—the entire EU looks desperate. While it is a noble task to help support the sovereignty of the EaP countries and to stop them from sliding into further chaos, the EU seems to be chasing after these countries despite negative developments on the ground. That was never the point of the initiative. The EU may not like or accept this image, but this is the reality.

The EU has invested a lot of time and political capital in negotiating agreements with the EaP countries in recent years. It has increased the amount of aid it gives to EaP governments, opened programs and agencies to the participation of the EaP countries, and made travel for their citizens to the EU a bit easier. Yet, none of the Eastern Partnership countries has really gotten closer to the EU. In fact, most of them have either stayed at the same arm’s length or even moved further away, despite pro-European rhetoric and active participation in EU talks.

So where does this leave the EU and its Eastern Partnership? It is too early to relegate the initiative to the trash heap or to say that the EU’s offer was not enticing enough or not packaged well. It is too early to take a strategic pause and let the people of the EaP countries put their own houses in order. The latter may happen, but it may also take decades, if not centuries.

The EaP is a good base to build on. Now, the EU has to invest more—and perhaps more wisely—in the region.

Getting the “More for More” Approach Right

In 2010–2011, when the EU revised its European Neighborhood Policy—an umbrella policy for the Eastern Partnership initiative—it defined a more-for-more principle. The idea was simple: partner countries that reformed more would receive more support from Brussels. While this was a rational approach, it has not always worked out as anticipated. The EU has ended up providing more for less, not enough for more, and not exactly needed for less.

Take Ukraine, once a pioneer and a role model for the EU’s relations with the EaP region. The EU provided more in the form of aid, while the government reformed less or simply misbehaved. The people of Ukraine have missed out; Brussels gave them less on the issue of freedom of travel despite quite a successful reform campaign in this area launched by local NGOs.

Azerbaijan got more support—in terms of less criticism of its poor democratic record and budget support for judicial reforms—but the government did not make any moves in the direction of change. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s citizens have received little despite their suffering under the current regime.

In all cases, economic or geopolitical interests, not the reform motive, have prevailed when the EU has applied its more-for-more principle. For instance, the EU needed energy resources from Azerbaijan, so even though Brussels mildly criticized the country for its poor democratic record, Baku still received promises of an Association Agreement and aid from the Europeans. Geopolitics seems to play a key role in the relationship with Ukraine. The EU continues to give aid to Ukraine even if the country does not reform. Some EU member states are also pushing to sign the agreement without Kyiv delivering on its promises just to keep Ukraine within the European orbit. This has been harmful for the EU and its image, and, most importantly, it has undermined the EU’s already-weak leverage over the region.

The more-for-more principle must be clarified, and a more coherent approach should be applied in the region.

Since most EaP governments are unlikely to democratize and reform their countries in the near future, the more-for-more principle should be changed into a two-track approach: for societies and for governments.

EaP societies should always receive more aid and deeper engagement from the EU, independent of the level of democracy in their country. Governments should only get more if they cooperate and reform. If they do not cooperate and reform, they will not get a new agreement with the EU, budget support, or summits—they will get nothing. This will effectively be a less-for-less approach. The EU will leave the governments and elites to decide if they want to make the necessary changes to stay on the more-for-more track.

Is the Association Agreement a Panacea?

Association Agreements—especially the deep and comprehensive free trade they entail—were meant to encourage serious changes in the region. Although a country is not offered a membership perspective when it signs such an agreement with the EU, the accord alone may help the governments reform and—as Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski put it—may lead to a legal revolution in the region. The governments of the EaP countries strive toward such agreements, at least at the declaratory level. Even Armenia, an underperformer and one of Russia’s closest allies in the region, has started talks with the EU.

In the EU, the Association Agreement is often seen as the cure for all diseases in the region or as a game changer. Yet, despite all the potential benefits of these agreements, the question of implementation remains wide open. The implementation process will entail allowing greater transparency and more competition in almost all spheres of public life in participating countries. Cutting red tape and corruption will be necessary. And the judiciary must be allowed to function in an unbiased way.

All of this change will be painful—if not life threatening—for the elites in all six Eastern Partnership countries. All of them have a proven record of cherry-picking reforms. They lack the capacity to implement the necessary changes or have an escape route that involves simply sliding into another messy political crisis with no room for reform. Holding out additional carrots—like an EU membership perspective—to sugarcoat the losses that local elites will incur and spark the elites’ interest in reform will not encourage progress.

This does not mean that the idea of signing agreements with the EaP countries should be dropped or shelved until better times. The EU should keep the option of signing agreements open for all those governments showing a clear commitment to reform. And the EU will know when that commitment exists if it stops thinking geopolitically and starts acting like a transformative normative power.

On Ukraine in particular, the EU must avoid the now-or-never approach. The promise of signing an agreement is the only real leverage Brussels has over Kyiv (unless the EU is ready for sanctions). Ukrainians are likely to enact a number of painful yet bearable measures before the summit but will leave the most painful untouched, hoping the EU will sign the agreement just so it can say it had a successful Vilnius Summit.

Instead of rushing toward agreement, the EU should allow Ukrainians to define their own pace of moving toward signing, which may well be after the summit. That will relieve some of the pressure on the EU, which will also get to avoid sidestepping its own values and losing credibility. Once Ukraine meets all the conditions, the EU should ensure that the agreement is signed quickly and that the document is ratified equally quickly by the European Parliament and national legislatures.

A Wiser Investment in the Eastern Partnership Region

When it comes to the implementation of Association Agreements with the Eastern Partnership states, should they eventually be signed, the EU cannot do all the heavy lifting itself. And it will have to come to terms with that. What the EU can do now is engage more wisely with the citizens of EaP countries to encourage grassroots efforts to push governments to reform.

The EU does not have many ways to pressure the EaP governments to implement reforms. The monitoring and dispute-settlement mechanisms in Association Agreements are currently weak, even if they are stronger than those in the World Trade Organization. In theory the EU could suspend the agreement altogether if reforms are not made, but such a move may be constrained by geopolitical considerations.

But the governments may not take the necessary steps on their own. If implementation is run by the local bureaucracy of the EaP countries—rarely a cheerleader of change—the agreement is not likely to be implemented properly.

Changes cannot be imposed from the top; they have to come from the bottom. Allowing change to happen from the bottom up will require the EU to leave its comfort zone and build new partnerships in the EaP region. In most EaP countries, the EU already has a relationship with a ring of active NGOs that are willing to and capable of monitoring the implementation of EU-related commitments and advising governments on the substance of reforms. Yet, this is not enough. The EU will also have to reach out to those in EaP societies who do not work on issues of European integration, do not travel to the EU, and do not speak EU languages.

The idea is not to simply make more friends in the EaP countries or make more EaP citizens move to the EU. The aim is to help the citizens of these countries wake up from their Soviet or post-Soviet sleep and understand their role and obligations as responsible citizens. It is to encourage them to vote and push for the improvement of their freedoms and quality of life rather than for geopolitical choices and familiar faces. More professional exchanges and training should be opened between the nongovernmental sectors of EaP countries and their partners in the EU.

For this effort to be successful, the EU will have to abolish visas for the citizens of EaP countries and drastically increase the number and variety of scholarships for EaP students at all levels.

The least the EU can do immediately on the visa front is push its member states to implement visa-facilitation agreements, where relevant, to allow more flexible visas to wider circles of EaP citizens.

Then it will have to abolish visas completely. That will be difficult for the EU. With Europe’s ongoing economic crisis and unemployment levels reaching 25 percent in some EU member states, the natural reaction would be to keep the borders tightly closed. But that is not a solution, not least because millions of illegal migrants from EaP countries—and the rest of the EU’s neighborhood—have already crossed those tight borders. And for those millions who do not want to immigrate, easier travel to the EU could open a whole new world.

Brussels can and should put pressure on the EaP governments to meet the technical conditions necessary to enable their citizens’ visa-free travel to the EU. However, in some cases like Belarus or Azerbaijan, the EU—as some EaP observers suggest—could consider taking unilateral measures by opening up borders for short-term travel.

When it comes to scholarships, the EU does not need new funds but to do its math differently. Currently, the EU spends tens of millions of taxpayer euros on EaP governments. For instance, it provided €45 million ($58 million) for the reform of Ukraine’s energy sector and €15 million ($19 million) for the reform of Azerbaijan’s judiciary. It is unlikely that the governments will reform these sectors because doing so would mean stepping on the toes of the elites or taking away their safety nets.

This funding will reap greater benefits—even if over time—if it is invested into the education of Ukrainian and Azeri students in the EU. According to rough estimates, €45 million can provide opportunities for 1,500 students to get their master’s degrees in the UK or for 3,000 in Estonia or Poland. The number will be even larger if those pursuing bachelor’s degrees receive these scholarships for at least a year in some EU universities. To ensure these students return to their home countries, the EU should follow the U.S. model that includes contracts under which students are obliged to go back.

A Potential Spoiler?

Waiting on the periphery is a large, looming challenge: Russia and its Eurasian customs union. This is one of the most sensitive issues for some EU member states. They argue that the project is a competitor of the Eastern Partnership. Because of that, they say, Association Agreements must be signed at any cost and quickly, or else Eastern Partnership states will run toward or will be coerced into joining Moscow’s project.

The truth is that membership in the Eurasian customs union is politically and economically painful for the leadership and elite of participating countries. What’s more, the Association Agreement is a modernization tool, not a geopolitical weapon. The EU wields its transformative power most effectively when it encourages reforms in partner countries and maintains high standards within the union, not when it threatens others.

These considerations are particularly significant when it comes to Ukraine. Signing an agreement with Ukraine even if the country does not deliver on all the outlined conditions will not bolster the EU’s credibility in the eyes of ordinary Ukrainians. It will also not put an end to negative trends in Ukrainian politics.

Signing the agreement if Ukraine meets all the necessary conditions will legally bind the country to the EU, yet that alone will not make Ukraine more European. The only way to counter Moscow’s offer is to change the mindset of the people—through open borders and formal and informal education.

The Vilnius Summit can be successful. The Lithuanian government has the strategic vision and courage necessary to suggest changes to the EaP initiative that will enable Eastern Partnership societies to evolve. The leadership within the region will not like these changes, but Europeans all know that Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and even Belarus are more than their bureaucracies and elites. The EU should be brave enough to finally make a difference in the region.