For the longest time, the participation of civil society has not been an area of interest for neither EU researchers nor political decision-makers. This changed with a rising interest in the democratic credentials of the European Union. With the end of the initial permissive consensus on EU integration, civil society emerged as a possible remedy to bridge the gap between supranational governance and citizens. This Living Review presents the two dominant analytical perspectives on civil society participation: the notion of civil society as organized actors that contribute actively to multilevel governance, and civil society as the mold for an emerging European public sphere. Both these conceptual views are reflected in hands-on initiatives on the EU level. On the one hand, the European Commission in particular promotes the inclusion of organized societal interests in the informal decision-making procedures. On the other hand, various forms of deliberative practices have been introduced that build on the encompassing notion of constituting a trans-European public sphere. The review offers a comprehensive overview on the multiple definitions of civil society and the distinct role attributions these coexisting conceptions imply. The contribution draws a number of critical conclusions on the actual outcomes that the active promotion of civil society participation has thus achieved, and questions whether civil society participation has indeed led to a more grounded legitimacy of EU decisions or a more settled European public sphere.