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How an obscure rule could trample EU dissenters

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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.

"Certainly in Ireland it would have been considered a sneaky inclusion [in the treaty]. I can't see it going down well. Most people will probably be torn but this won't sit well with them, or indeed with national governments," she says.

Despite this, Ms. Murphy says any decision to attempt to do so can be understood: "There was an understanding that it would only be done in an emergency. If ever there was an emergency situation, this is it."

A post-democratic phase?

Businessman Declan Ganley, who led the campaigns against the Lisbon treaty in both 2008 and 2009, says he warned of the EU's ability to override the national parliaments and Ireland's Constitution in 2009.

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