In recent years, new forms of governance have emerged in Europe engaging actors beyond the state in the act of governing. Water policy in general and basin management in particular, through the EU Water Framework Directive, is clearly one of the policies affected by these new forms of steering. Through two case studies carried out in Spain, this article analyses how in a few years hydro-politics in Europe has moved from a stage of social contestation to a new scenario of consensual governance. Wondering about the democratic qualities of these mechanisms and questioning the role of civil society on them, the research shows important differences in objectives and forms between social movements and the state around these new forms of governance. Although social movements are replacing strategies of contestation by strategies of collaboration with the state, the reproduction of geometries of power and the impossibility of tackling a political debate about the given framework of values established in a neo-liberal and market-driven context make the participation of civil society on governance mechanisms really difficult in terms of freedom and equality. We conclude that governance may be useful to avoid social conflict in a deliberative way, but is failing thinking citizens from a perspective of commonality. © 2011 Taylor & Francis.