Romania – President’s veto on Forestry Code sparks first conflict with prime minister

In the first five months of his term, President Iohannis has asked parliament to re-examine eight bills. This is by no means an unusual level of presidential activism during a period of cohabitation, as the bar was set high by his predecessor. However, the president’s veto on the Forestry Code stands out because it triggered not only one of the first serious clashes with the prime minister, but also a strong public reaction and a change in the president’s approach of publicising the way in which he uses the formal power to either promulgate or return laws to parliament.

One of the first bills President Iohannis sent to parliament for re-examination in late March 2015 was the Forestry Code. One of the provisions singled out for reconsideration regarded the introduction of a 30% threshold on the amount of a certain type of wood that single companies can process. According to the president’s re-examination request, the new bill ran counter to European Union competition law as it aimed to limit the economic activities of some companies. However, the decision to veto this law was not accompanied by a public statement or motivation, in spite of a vigorous and years-long public debate in Romania about massive deforestation and foreign lobbying in the forestry industry.

As it happened, the Austrian-based Holzindustrie Schweighofer, one of the largest wood processing companies in Romania, had been lobbying against the new Forestry Code using the same arguments. Several weeks after the president returned the bill to the parliament, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) accused Schweighofer officials of accepting illegally harvested wood and promising bonuses to the sellers. The revelations prompted country-wide protests against both the government, for allowing foreign companies to destroy Romania’s forests, and the president for delaying the enforcement of a bill that aimed to prevent foreign monopoly over the forestry industry.

A public spat soon erupted between the prime minister and the president as well, after the former claimed that the decision to veto the forestry bill had been influenced by Liberal leaders after private meetings with the Austrian company. President Iohannis was uncharacteristically vehement in his reaction, as he asked the chief of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) to check the premier’s statements and threatened legal action if they proved wrong.  Soon afterwards, both of them took steps to put illegal logging at the top of the political agenda: the premier announced an emergency decree to temporarily ban exports of unprocessed wood, while the president tabled an analysis of illegal deforestation in the next meeting of the Supreme Council of National Defence (CSAT).

Interestingly, the controversial association between the president’s veto and foreign lobbying in the forestry industry has also led to a reconsideration of the way in which the head of state informs the public about his actions. In a press conference called shortly after three parliamentary committees rejected his re-examination request, President Iohannis announced that in the future he will explain publicly decisions to promulgate, veto, or challenge the legality of important bills. He also clarified that the decision to return the Forestry Code to parliament was motivated by a formal notice from the Competition Council, adding that he was not planning to ask a Constitutional Court ruling on the bill.

Moreover, apart from discussing other bills he promulgated or was prepared to challenge, the president also spoke about bills he would veto if passed by parliament in current form. Specifically, President Iohannis warned that he would not promulgate amendments to the Criminal Code that protected MPs from investigation and was ready to challenge the law at the Constitutional Court.

In the future it will be interesting to follow if such warnings of imminent veto power use and public justifications of re-examination accompanied by amendment suggestions have a better change of increasing the president’s influence over the legislative process.

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