Environmental assessment (EA) in the European Union (EU) is undergoing a period of significant transition. Following over 10 years of practice and development under directive 85/337/EEC, the EU EA system is being subjected to legislative reform. In the light of this, this paper provides a critical examination of the past, present and future role of EA in the EU. After evaluating the legislative transposition and procedural effectiveness of the original provisions, the paper examines the extent to which recent amendments to the directive and the proposed strategic environmental assessment (SEA) Directive will lead to improvement. The authors suggest that although the changes should overcome some of the procedural and practical problems experienced over the past 10 years, a more committed emphasis needs to be placed on fundamental areas of weakness.