For a variety of reasons, the European Union’s efforts to promote closer integration with the six Eastern European countries outside Russia—Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine in the east, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in the southeast—are failing. The Eastern Partnership (EaP) is a worthy project and a great improvement on its predecessors, but September’s summit in Warsaw showed how hard meaningful engagement with the eastern neighborhood is.

Russia of course poses challenges, but twenty years after they achieved independence from the Soviet Union it would be a convenient distraction to blame the problems of these countries on Russia. At the age of 20, these states have achieved adulthood and should take responsibility for their own actions. Besides, as Dmitri Trenin observes, Russia is in its own transition to becoming a “post-imperial” power. Aside from a few critical spots such as Abkhazia and the Crimea, Russia no longer feels the need to project hard power in its neighborhood. NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine was a red-line issue for Moscow, but the EU by contrast is simply a fact of life to the West, just as China is in Central Asia and Turkey is in the South Caucasus.

The main problem Russia poses is an economic one. It is all too easy for these countries to fall back on a default model where business is controlled by cliques that are part of or close to the political elite, rules are bent, and profits are siphoned off. Even in Georgia, which has made some impressive economic reforms, there are still hidden monopolies that are not open to public scrutiny. Here Russia offers a much easier model, its businessmen offer lots of easy capital, and, in the case of Belarus and Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is offering a customs union that would mean soft integration with much of the Russian economy.

To these oligarchic elites, the EU’s toughly regulated economy model is, as one Brussels official put it to me, a “Trojan horse,” which could undermine everything they currently possess. This is why with three of the six countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus—there is currently no prospect of any free trade agreement and in the other three—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—there is resistance to the proposed Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU. Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine is the starkest example of this duality. The Ukrainian leadership knows that the EU offers its best development model and route out of poverty, but the short-term political agenda—put crudely, the preservation of power and wealth—trumps a longer-term vision. The jailing of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko on October 11 was a slap in the face to concerted efforts by the EU to encourage Ukraine to look west.

Why is Brussels failing? Of course it currently has little time and few resources for its eastern neighborhood. It is facing an unprecedented crisis as it tries to save the euro, while the “Arab Spring” has sucked up any spare capacity of its top foreign policy officials. In Warsaw, the slow-burning crisis in Belarus captured most of the agenda. And yes, the External Action Service is still new and finding its feet.

But there is reason to believe that even if the view down the Rue de la Loi was completely serene, things would not be much different.

The problem is that the EU is simply not intellectually ready to embrace the concept of a wider union of perhaps three dozen countries. And therefore as a whole—some central European countries and the UK being the exception—it does not talk about a membership perspective for the eastern six.

Without the big carrot of membership, the incentives simply will not be there among the eastern six to make fundamental changes. Yet the fact that these countries are so far from EU standards—two decades away at least if they were to begin now—of course makes it easier for Brussels to make that offer. Think of Turkey in the 1960s, the road it has travelled and the fact that it is not even there yet—or has perhaps passed the EU by. The promise of eventual membership if standards are met would be a real stimulus for these European countries and separate the doers from the talkers. Naturally the EU they would aspire to join in 2030 would be so large it would be a different EU—but that in turn would stimulate a healthy debate about what kind of union could cover the whole of Europe.

The EaP has been innovative in two positive ways. The DCFTA project, by promising privileged entry into the EU single market, offers something very tangible to these elites. That may be enough for Moldova or for Georgia, if it ends its unrealistic flirtation with the idea of becoming a deregulated “Caucasian Singapore” or Dubai. The project’s civil society dimension is also a recognition of an important reality—that ordinary citizens are often more pro-European than their rulers. If that insight is followed up in real initiatives, such as effective visa liberalization for professionals or increased opportunities for students to study in EU countries, that would be a very good start.

If a new Ostpolitik is to have a really transformative effect in these post-Soviet countries, then its central component should be an eventual membership perspective. Those who balk at this prospect should not just consider the positive outcomes it could bring but also the negatives of a continuing status quo. In the eastern regions of Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine, that would mean they remain a continuing source of criminality, poverty, and perhaps political repression, while in the South Caucasus, that means they will continue to be sources of potential conflict and disaster—while in both cases the big western neighbor of these regions, the EU, will inevitably end up fighting the fires and footing the bills.

Thomas de Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He is the author, most recently, of Georgia’s Choices (2011) and The Caucasus: An Introduction (2010).

To reinvigorate debate over European foreign policy and Europe’s role in the world, Carnegie Europe is publishing a series of essays from leading policymakers, diplomats, experts, and journalists on Strategic Europe over the coming weeks. A new essay will appear every day.