EU leaders say visiting Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has until May to show his nation has made progress towards political reform.
The carrot is a free trade deal which would move Kiev further out of Moscow’s orbit.
Back in Ukraine, thousands saw the Brussels summit as an occasion to take to the streets.
The EU says democracy has taken a backward step since Yanukovich came to power, the imprisonment of his main opponent Yiulia Tymoshenko being an illustrative example.
“The hypocrisy of the current regime is that they want their accounts abroad but they don’t want to stop repression in Ukraine. Europe is waiting for Ukraine, but for a Ukraine free from repression, a democratic and independent state” said one campaigner.
“It is impossible for Ukrainian criminal investigators to get at the highest levels of corruption. So instead, to bump up the number of convictions, they go for those who are more vulnerable” said Oleksandr Banchuk from the Centre for Political and Judicial Reforms.
After talks with Yanukovich in Brussels, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said the EU authorities would need to see tangible progress, at the latest by May.
Ukraine must also choose between belonging to the EU’s free trade agreement or Moscow’s customs union.