The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is a pioneering piece of legislation that aims to protect and enhance aquatic ecosystems and promote sustainable water use across Europe. There is growing concern that the objective of good status, or higher, in all EU waters by 2027 is a long way from being achieved in many countries. Through questionnaire analysis of almost 100 experts, we provide recommendations to enhance WFD monitoring and assessment systems, improve programmes of measures and further integrate with other sectoral policies. Our analysis highlights that there is great potential to enhance assessment schemes through strategic design of monitoring networks and innovation, such as earth observation. New diagnostic tools that use existing WFD monitoring data, but incorporate novel statistical and trait-based approaches could be used more widely to diagnose the cause of deterioration under conditions of multiple pressures and deliver a hierarchy of solutions for more evidence-driven decisions in river basin management. There is also a growing recognition that measures undertaken in river basin management should deliver multiple benefits across sectors, such as reduced flood risk, and there needs to be robust demonstration studies that evaluate these. Continued efforts in ‘mainstreaming’ water policy into other policy sectors is clearly needed to deliver wider success with WFD goals, particularly with agricultural policy. Other key policy areas where a need for stronger integration with water policy was recognised included urban planning (waste water treatment), flooding, climate and energy (hydropower). Having a deadline for attaining the policy objective of good status is important, but even more essential is to have a permanent framework for river basin management that addresses the delays in implementation of measures. This requires a long-term perspective, far beyond the current deadline of 2027.