Although a relationship between established democratic political systems and environmental capacity has been described, the impact of the democratisation process on environmental capacity is not clear. The aim of this article is to determine the effect of both prior regime type and mode of transition on environmental capacity, through consideration of the cases of Bulgaria, Portugal, Romania and Spain. In addition, the importance of the European Union (EU) as an external actor shaping environmental capacity building is assessed. Findings indicate that variations in prior regime type and mode of transition had limited impact on environmental capacity development. Of greater importance were the persistent non-democratic legacies that influenced behaviours and actions during the democratisation period. The requirements of the EU were fundamental in ensuring that environmental issues remained on the domestic political agenda in such a context.