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How an obscure rule could trample EU dissenters

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A document from the office of European Council President Herman van Rompuy, seen by The Christian Science Monitor last night, detailed a number of potential changes, along with methods for obtaining them. The European Council is composed of the 27 heads of government in the EU.

Such moves toward fiscal union would require major changes to national constitutions. In the case of Ireland, a difficult-to-pass referendum would be required.

But the European Council document indicates the EU may attempt to avoid a referendum using a "passerelle" clause in the Lisbon Treaty. Passerelle, French for "overpass," means the European Council is enabled to override the need for an intergovernmental convention. But any changes via this method will not amount to the sweeping centralization of powers that Merkel in particular wants.

Article 126 of the treaty, which deals with excessive deficits, allows heads of government to change a protocol attached to the treaty without having to go to a convention involving national parliaments or, in the case of Ireland, a referendum.

"Passerelle clauses are narrow and small," Ben Tonra, professor of EU politics at University College Dublin. "You can't shove an elephant through a back door."

The proposal would create "automaticity" of sanctions, giving the European Court of Justice the power to impose fines on countries that failed to balance their budgets.

Political impact would be significant

Mary C. Murphy, lecturer in politics as University College Cork, says invoking the clause could be politically problematic.

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