In Praise of Talking Shops


I once had a cynical business friend (cynical even by the standards of journalism, where it is something of a professional requirement) who told me chambers of commerce were a waste of time and money, a talking shop that achieved very little. At the time, he may have been right. Not any longer.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary held its fourth annual “Business Meets Government Summit” this week (for a more detailed report, see “Everything is Connected to Everything”). The chamber went through something of a reinvention a few years back, refining its mission, its focus and how it hoped to achieve that. The summit is one of the outcomes of that process.

I suspect there is an element of “size matters” about this. AmCham and the German chamber, which has also managed the grab the ear of law makers, between them represent some of the very largest investors in Hungary. But the chambers have also become smarter at how they communicate with government, coming up with solutions as well as problems, and presenting a business case for fixing them. And they have learnt the virtue of patience. Last year Farkas Bársony, the current president of AmCham, pointed out that the chamber had first called for reforms to corporate income tax in 2004, 13 years before the government slashed it to an EU-record low of 9%. Governments, of course, have different priorities from businesses. Including the one already in power in 2004, there have been five cabinets since 2004 (six if you count the unelected caretaker government of Gordon Bajnai who was in power from 2009-10 following the resignation of Ferenc Gyurcsány). The last three have all been led by Fidesz; perhaps the two sides have simply finally found a way of working together.

It is one thing for the business world to speak, quite another for the political world to react. An event such as the summit is about building relationships, exchanging views. It genuinely is a talking shop (if not here, then when?) It was certainly refreshing to hear state secretaries talking about “joined-up thinking”; the effects one policy has on another. Too often, politicians think in isolation, looking for a box to tick, a short-term fix, a boost in the ratings. Actions need to follow words, but at least the words suggest a better direction.

The Competitiveness Council, a gathering of the grand and the wise from the business world to advise government, has made many good suggestions. Seemingly quite low down on the priority list is one of its latest ideas: doing away with dubbing over foreign TV programming in Hungary. It’s important because it has a clear impact of the level to which children learn foreign languages. It is not by accident that so many Dutch children speak such good English: they watch subtitled programs, not dubbed.

One of the state secretaries made the point that there are rival voices, the dubbing lobby which claims that Hungary is a world leader at synchronization. It quite possibly is, but that’s not necessarily a skill you want to lead the world in. Quite what power the dubbing lobby has I do not know, but I get the feeling the council is pushing against an open door. If so, it will be another victory for patience; I first had conversations with linguists about this back in the noughties.

Robin Marshall


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