Austria & Germany – The pocket-veto power of Federal Presidents

The majority of European presidents (as well as presidents in most other countries around the world) possess at least some role in the legislative process. Typically, this is the right to veto legislation, i.e. send bills back to parliament (usually with comments/sometimes with proposed amendments) where they are then discussed again. Two prominent exceptions are Austria and Germany where presidents do not formally have the right to refuse their signature.[1] Nevertheless, the interpretation of the respective constitutional stipulations is not clear and it can be argued that they possess a form of pocket veto.

Austrian president Heinz Fischer is the only Austrian president to date who has refused to sign a bill despite having no specific veto power |photo via wikimedia commons

At first glance, the stipulations of the Austrian and German constitutions about the final stages of the legislative process appear relatively simple and are almost identical – once a law has been passed it is signed and promulgated by the president (see table below) and the constitution do not foresee a presidential right to refuse the signature. Constitutional scholars in both countries have however argued that presidents may still refuse their signature under certain conditions, although the debate here has not reached a definite conclusion.

Austrian Constitution – Art 47 (1) The adoption of federal laws in accordance with the constitution is authenticated by the signature of the Federal President.
German Basic Law – Art 82 (1) Laws enacted in accordance with the provisions of this Basic Law shall, after countersignature, be certified by the Federal President and promulgated in the Federal Law Gazette.

The main point of contention is hereby the fact that both constitutions do not simply stipulate that presidents sign adopted laws but that they sign laws enacted/adopted in accordance with the respective constitution. For most scholars it is clear that presidents should be allowed to refuse signature to bills (or might pursuant to their oath of office to protect the constitution even have the duty to do so) if there were any procedural errors in any part of the legislative process. This could for instance be that the bill was not passed with the required majority or that the draft did not go through all three readings (correcting such procedural errors is interestingly also a not infrequent reason for ‘ordinary’ presidential vetoes in other European countries).

A significant minority of experts however argues that presidents do not only have the right to check the violation of procedural rules before they sign the bill (and refuse signature if they find any) and assert that the term ‘in accordance with the constitution’ needs to be interpreted more widely. Presidents should therefore also be allowed to review the constitutionality of bills with regard to further stipulations and only sign the bill if there are no ‘obvious’ violations (i.e. presidents and their administration should still not perform an in-depth legal analysis). In Germany, this group of scholars is further divided between a larger group that argues that the president should only check the bill for violations of the ‘fundamental rights‘ and a smaller group supporting an all-encompassing review power. Nonetheless, all scholars agree that presidents cannot refuse to sign bills for political reasons or non-legal objections to the content of legislation.

As there are no provisions that would allow presidents to return the bill to parliament (and for parliament to pass the bill again without introducing it again as a new draft), even the dominant ‘procedural’ interpretation of the respective stipulations can be seen as a form of pocket veto. From 1949 until now, presidents in both countries have only extremely rarely tried to exploit these constitutional ambiguities. German presidents have refused their signature on 6 occasions so far [2] and there has only been one case in Austria. In all cases, the refusal to sign the bills was clearly triggered by very obvious procedural errors or violations of basic constitutional principles. Nevertheless, the practical relevance should not be underestimated.

Although German presidents have only refused their signature under a bill once every ten years, the possibility of the president’s refusal to sign a bill accompanies most debates about controversial legislation, e.g. the recent passage of new regulations on the remuneration of members of the Bundestag. Even by delaying the signature under a bill and speculating about a pocket veto, presidents might able to extract concessions on related legislation in the future. In Austria, incumbent president Heinz Fischer was the first refusing to sign a bill, meaning that even after 60 years of constitutional practice in which presidents routinely played a subordinate role to the government president are able to curb out new powers.  Furthermore, similar to Germany the possibility of a pocket veto has also become part of Austrian debates about legislation.

For now, it is unlikely that parliaments or governments in either country will approach constitutional courts to have presidents’ compentencies clarified as it is possible that the court will provide unfavourable interpretation of the constitution and extend presidential powers. Nevertheless, at the same time the fact that a decision could also be taken in parliaments’ or governments’ favour should ensure that presidents do not use their power more frequently.

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[1] The Slovenian president also has no veto power, yet regulations differ from the Austrian and German examples.
[2] Tavits, Margit. 2008. Presidents and Prime Ministers. Do direct elections matter? Oxford: OPU. p 81.

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