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MEPs cluster and split in new EU forum

NEGOTIATIONS today and tomorrow will determine the strength of the European Parliament's two main centre- right groupings. The Parliament's political structure is going through a transformation, reflecting the entry of new parties and the weakening of traditional blocs.

The picture on the left is relatively simple. The Party of European Socialists look likely to return with the same number of MEPs - 198 - as in the outgoing Parliament, even though the number of seats has risen from 518 to 567. One member is suspended. Their make-up is straightforward, including Socialist and Social Democrat parties from the 12 countries, including the Labour Party.

But the groups on the centre-right face uncomfortable choices. The standard- bearer of the right, and traditionally the other main blocs, is the Christian Democrat-led European People's Party. It had (at last count) 152 members, down from 162. Yesterday it elected as its leader Wilfried Martens, the former Belgian prime minister and traditional Christian Democrat. The British Conservatives maintain their link with the group, though the party is not a member.

The group was weakened at the elections by the collapse of Italy's Christian Democrats. Forza Italia, the new centre-right party led by the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlsuconi, will stay outside the party blocs, at least for the time being. It would like, eventually, to join up with the EPP, but both the Christian Democrats and Forza Italia have decided that discussions on membership now would be premature. Forza Italia is opposed by many MEPs because of its links with the neo-Fascist-led National Alliance, also in Italy's ruling coalition.

However, Forza Italia is also in discussions with the Liberal Democrat and Reformist Group. This disturbs Britain's Liberal Democrats, who have links with the LDR even though it is further to the right than the British party. The Liberal Democrats are also not natural bedfellows for France's neo-Gaullist RPR, which is likely to join the LDR if negotiations can be successfully concluded.

A new grouping has arisen on the centre-left. The 13 French Radicals under the controversial millionaire, Bernard Tapie, have decided to create their own block, which will also embrace the two Scottish Nationalist MEPs and other Greens and regionalists. The departure of the Scottish Nationalists and a Belgian from the Rainbow group may end what was always an unstable coalition.

The far-right has also ev aporated as a parliamentary force, since too few members were elected to make a group. However, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, says he is awaiting Austria's entry into the EU next year, which he hopes will bring new far-right members into the fold and allow the group to be reconstituted.

The Green Party and the Coalition des Gauches, which groups Communists, are also meeting today. The number of independent MEPs seems set to rise with several parties unable to find homes, at least at the moment. Ireland's centre-right Fianna Fail party will be stranded if the Gaullists leave their group for the LDR. Ideally they would prefer to be with the Christian Democrats, but their political opponents, Fine Gael, are already there.