EU legal instruments and policies for the protection of the marine environment date back to the 1970s, with the approval of the first Directives and Regulations addressing specific sectors such as fisheries and maritime transport (e.g., the Regulation (EEC) No 2142/70 on the common organisation of the market in fishery products). Over the following decades, several other instruments have been adopted with the aim to reduce marine environmental pollution from land-based sources (such as the Nitrates Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive), to introduce a sustainable management of European fishing fleets and conserving fish stocks (Common fisheries policy (CFP)),  to protect coastal and marine habitats and species (such as the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive).

More recently, new scientific and management frameworks emerged, such as the Ecosystem Approach, which explicitly recognise the need to address more effectively the persistent problems of overfishing, biodiversity loss, and marine pollution, adopting an eco-centric perspective and integrating humans and their environment. These approaches have been first introduced in Europe in 2000 with the approval of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which applies for the first time in Europe an Ecosystem Approach to the management of water systems, including transitional and coastal waters. This process culminated in 2008 with the approval of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), which extends this approach to the achievement of the Good Environmental Status (GES) of the European marine waters.

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) provides a coherent, holistic framework for the protection of the marine environment and the sustainable management of the resources upon which maritime economic and social activities depend, in tight coordination with the other relevant legal instruments aimed at environmental protection (such as the Habitats and Birds Directives), the regulation of specific maritime sectors (such as the Common Fisheries Policy and the related Marine Action plan:  Protecting and restoring marine ecosystems for sustainable and resilient fisheries), or at limiting specific sources of pollution (such as the Nitrates Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive). All these legal instruments are connected under the wide umbrella of the Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP), a cross-cutting policy framework that aims to foster the sustainable development of the marine environment in Europe by improving the coordination of all relevant policies, of which the MSFD is the environmental pillar. This coherent legal and policy framework also contributes to the achievement of existing commitments at global level (Sustainable Development Goals, Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework) and in the context of the European Regional Sea Conventions (HELCOM, OSPAR, UNEP/MAP Barcelona Convention, and Bucharest Convention).