Recently, 'new modes of governance' based on voluntary performance standards, rather than compulsory regulation, have gained salience in European Union governance. Can these 'new modes of governance' offer a credible solution to the challenges faced by EU policy making? We argue that a critical appraisal is difficult when it is based a) on the scarce empirical evidence, or b) the programmatic pronouncements of policy makers. We suggest instead c) assessing the potential of new governance in the light of theoretical approaches to the EU polity. While current theories of European governance shed some light on the challenges to be addressed by new governance, we argue that the theory of democratic experimentalism makes it possible to better identify the potential and the problems of new EU governance. This theoretical perspective suggests, first, that coordination by voluntary performance standards can lead to more effective rules and more opportunties for political participation, second, that the scope of this mode of governance in the EU is not confined to cases which are explicitly flagged as 'new governance', and third, that one of the main problems is how a voluntary mode of governance can coexist with compulsory regulation.