The EU has concluded the Association Agreements (AAs) with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. These are very ambitious, complex and comprehensive legal treaties. The AAs have a dual purpose: to enable political cooperation and economic integration with the EU and promote modernization of the partner countries. The key instrument in achieving these goals is the ‘export of the acquis’: the partner countries have taken on extensive, binding commitments to adopt the vast sways of the acquis. In this paper, however, we argue that the transformative role of the acquis on its own have not been tested and hence should not be overstated ex ante. In our view, for the AAs to achieve their objectives, it is imperative to recognise this underlying challenge and develop strategies to address the fundamental ‘commitment-capacity gap’ in the partner countries. Against this backdrop, we investigate to what extent EU’s strategy focuses on the narrowly defined legal approximation versus broader support for strengthening state capacity. In the empirical part of the paper we examine specific measures adopted to close the ‘commitment-capacity’ gap of the partner country. Our analyses indicate that only in the case of Ukraine have some deliberate, pro-active adaptations taken place. The dramatic events of 2014 and Russia’s punitive measures against Ukraine prompted the EU to provide more tailored and flexible assistance to ensure support for institutional reforms, as a precondition for legal approximation. In Moldova, the EU has confronted the fundamental weakness of the state only as a result of the 2014 banking scandal. In Georgia, it seems that the EU is conducting ‘business as usual’, although there is some early evidence that it has started to take into account the developmental needs of the partner country. The limited appreciation of the challenges and resulting adaptions so far has implications in terms of the implementation of the AA and, more importantly, the actual transformative power of the EU in the Eastern neighbourhood.