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Fiona's views from Brussels

July 6, 2009 11:49 PM

* Former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, elected as the new ALDE group leader succeeding outgoing leader, Graham Watson

ALDE has a new group leader, Guy Verhofstadt, who as a former Belgian Prime Minister has a high profile in Europe and is well respected in the European Parliament. He has chaired the first meetings of the group with courtesy, efficiency and a sense of humour, and I think he will successfully build on Graham Watson's work to establish ALDE as the third force in the European Parliament that can often hold the balance of power and cast the deciding votes. I agree with Guy's analysis that working together in the European Union is the solution to the problems facing Europe at the moment. We need to push for more and better international action on climate change and we need to work hard to resolve the current economic and financial crisis.

* British Conservatives form new "anti-federalist" group in the European Parliament, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), by joining forces with far-right MEPs

David Cameron's decision to withdraw Tory MEPs from the leading centre-right group in the European Parliament, the European People's Party (EEP), is a big mistake. Cameron has aligned the Tories with far-right MEPs, mainly from the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the Czech Republic 's Civic Democratic Party (ODS), some of whom hold very extreme views about gay and women's rights. Cameron's decision has brought British Conservatives into disrepute in Europe.

With 264 MEPs, the EPP is the largest group in the European Parliament, controlling more than one-third of its votes. The UK loses substantial influence in the European Parliament because the Tories are the only conservative party in Europe not to be represented within this block. Cameron's new ECR of 55 MEPs is considerably smaller than the Liberal group (84) and only marginally bigger than the Greens.

Losing influence in Brussels also means losing influence in global politics. Major global players, such as the US, seek close relationships with Britain precisely because of its ability to influence EU decisions. Britain matters because it is an important European player. As a Financial Times commentary rightly pointed out: "For the UK, irrelevance in Europe means irrelevance everywhere."

But it remains to be seen whether the new ECR group will actually hold together, as its composition of "fringe parties" and solitary MEPs make it very fragile. To meet the criteria for being a group, the ECR needs MEPs from seven countries. This gives the solitary members from Latvia, Hungary, Lithuania, Belgium and the Netherlands great power over the group as the ECR can't afford to lose them.

It may be that Tory MEPs will continue to vote in line with the EEP group on most issues - which begs the question why they bothered leaving. It seems that even David Cameron is slightly uncomfortable and nervous about his new group, given that he decided to launch it without a press conference on the day the UK was occupied with the election of the new Speaker.

Keep up to date with all the latest news from Fiona, along with details of what Fiona has been doing in the North East and in the European Parliament, by visiting her website, www.fionahall.org.uk.