WHEN Australia saw the world threatening to divide up into trade blocs that left this isolated country out, it did the only sensible thing: It started its own trade group.
The 14-country Cairns Group of free-trading agricultural nations is responsible for getting agriculture on the GATT agenda and keeping it there.
For the Cairns Group, what happens in the next few days is crucial. A successful conclusion to the Uruguay Round means more open access to markets that the bigger players have locked them out of. For Australia alone, the benefits are estimated at $2.5 billion a year.
Aside from Australia, which chairs the group, the Cairns Group consists of representatives from New Zealand, Canada, Fiji, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia.
Monday's agreement between the United States and the European Union on farm issues is a positive step for Australia. But some concern remains whether US concessions to the EU on pushing back the starting date of its subsidy reductions also have resulted in the US getting greater access to EU markets at the expense of other countries.
``We've always said, and this can be true of the Cairns Group, that the issue of subsidies is one-half of the package,'' said Australia's Minister of Trade Peter Cook by phone from London. ``The other half is the reduction in border protection and tariffs.
``Our wish list is basically the boldest market access offers that can be achieved,'' Mr. Cook said. ``It's no good having an agreement that reduces domestic subsidies but doesn't open markets ... We'll look closely at what this deal is ... and what room there is for us to make adjustments to this package.''
While the countries included in the Cairns Group may be small, collectively they represent 130 million farmers versus the EU's 9 million to 10 million farmers.
The group has had some clout. In 1990, the Latin member countries staged a walkout during the GATT talks when agriculture was being sidelined. After a three month break, the meetings restarted and agriculture was back on.