Participation has become a mantra in environmental governance. However, there are signs that the participatory agenda has started to lose its momentum and justification because of disappointments about actual achievements. Rather than focusing on improving participatory processes or articulating best practices, in this paper we seek to understand the more fundamental reasons why difficulties are encountered. In our interviews with professionals involved in participation in environmental governance we found varying and potentially conflicting rationales for participation, with instrumental and legalistic rationales dominating. We contend that the institutional and political context in which this participation takes place is an important explanation of this prevalence. This includes the provisions for participation in EU directives, failing policy integration, institutional and political barriers, and failing political uptake of results from participation. We conclude there is a need for more reflexive awareness of the different ways in which participation is defined and practised in contemporary environmental policy making and for a more realistic assessment of possibilities for changes towards more participatory and deliberative decision making.