AmCham: COVID, War Highlight Need for More Open, Transparent, and Closer Cooperation

Interview

Zoltán Szabó, President of AmCham.

Photo by Lázár Todoroff / AmCham

AmCham President Zoltán Szabó talks with the Budapest Business Journal about the chamber’s latest Cooperation for a More Competitive and Sustainable Hungary publication, which identifies recommendations for the government to improve the Hungarian economy.

BBJ: What are the key takeaways of this year’s Cooperation document?

Zoltán Szabó: With the Cooperation for a More Competitive and Sustainable Hungary recommendation package for 2022-23, AmCham aims to improve the long-term performance of our economy on three levels.

Firstly, the general business climate, by supporting the creation of a stable and transparent regulatory environment and a competitive tax system. The windfall tax certainly does not help achieve the latter goal. Even though we understand the need for extra income, there is no strong case for it, so it should be phased out.

Two, we want to help build a highly-skilled, competitive, and healthy labor force in the required numbers through labor code amendments and a wide-scale education and training reform: this has been priority number one for businesses for a long time.

Finally, we want to set the foundations of our future success; we want to step on the path of smart growth by helping foster innovation and R&D, advance digitalization, and promote sustainability as an overarching economic policy.

This is a mighty task, especially in the challenging times in which we live. The last two years, with the pandemic and the war, have highlighted the need for a more open, transparent, and closer cooperation between the business sector and government for more effective strategic decisions in economic matters. We also urge the government to invest significantly more in developing the country’s human resources, mainly healthcare and education. It is simply the most significant investment opportunity for our country’s long-term success and competitiveness.

BBJ: Does it differ from previous recommendation packages regarding methodology or approach?

ZSz: From the start, we wanted a more transparent process with deeper involvement for our members. In the early stage, we launched a survey among our members to gain a better understanding of their concerns and priorities, considering the challenges and uncertainties of the last two years, and to learn more about their ideas to improve the Hungarian business climate and how we can cooperate with decision-makers more effectively. The survey gave us a great starting point; from then on, we held more frequent and extensive consultations with our members and the committees to expand proposals and validate ideas. This has been our most cooperative effort to date.

BBJ: Presumably, this package builds on its predecessors and shares elements of continuity with them. Are there any recommendations appearing for the first time, and if so, why?

ZSz: Sustainability has become one of the most critical objectives for our members in recent years, and this year’s package reflects this rising priority. We are looking into energy diversification and security, sustainable mobility, financing, and infrastructure in-depth in the document.

Also, with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, new and unique employment situations have emerged, which must be addressed, so we have proposals on remote working, flexible working hours, and the employment of third-country nationals, especially non-EU.

Healthcare is another pressing matter for our members. The quality of healthcare directly impacts our workforce and thus our competitiveness. We saw how the pandemic shook the entire system; it is time to prioritize the improvement of the health of the population as a matter of strategic interest.

BBJ: What percentage of previous recommendations have been taken up by past governments, and what are your expectations this year?

ZSz: Our goal is to bring issues to the table, offer direction and insight from the leaders and experts within our membership, and support decision-making if possible. Healthcare reform, education reform, changes of this magnitude require a lot of time, immense resources, and support from several stakeholders at various levels. Sometimes, even if we agree on an issue, the road to implementation is long and complicated, with plenty of obstacles.

BBJ: The 2022-2026 government has seven ministries that touch on some point or other of interest for business. Is that welcome attention, or does it just confuse matters? Do you have a single point of contact for the government or one for each ministry?

ZSz: We have well-established professional relationships with several ministries, including Foreign Affairs and Trade, Finance, Technology and Industry, and Justice, and we are hoping to build on this solid foundation. Of course, we have already approached the new ministries to start a dialogue (the recommendation package is a helpful tool for that), and we would like to have some new ministers address the membership at one of our forums this fall, too. The transitionary period after an election is always challenging with all the personnel changes, new structures, and institutions. It takes time to set up shop and establish rapport with new policymakers.

BBJ: How long has it taken to prepare this package of recommendations? Has that process become harder or easier over time?

ZSz: It took more than six months, timing the release after the election when the new government was set up. We have a diverse membership with companies from all sizes and sectors, with varying interests and goals. It is not the most straightforward task to channel all that input into one document, but I believe we have managed to focus on the most critical issues impacting our members today. Now it is our job to draw the decision-makers’ attention to them.

BBJ: Do you expect direct government feedback on its content?

ZSz: We have already received encouraging feedback, with more expected. The AmCham Policy Team is working hard to line up meetings with several policymakers on minister and state secretary levels, where we can discuss the proposals in greater detail. On July 11, we will meet László Palkovics, Minister of Technology and Industry. We may not agree on all matters, but AmCham always strives to have an open, constructive relationship with the government since it is our common goal to make Hungary more competitive and a better country in which to live, work and invest.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of July 1, 2022.

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