The news has been well covered in the Euro-Bloggosphere over the last few days, by Nosemonkey, Jon Worth, Julien Frisch, Grahnlaw, to name a few. The ability of the new group to hold itself together over the next Parliament has been called into question by Jon Worth and Nosemonkey after the Finnish member decided to stick with ALDE instead of making the leap to the ECR.
The Group has 55 members, making it the fourth biggest group in the EP, outstripping the European Greens-EFA by a narrow margin. At the same time, in order to fulfill the EP's rules on group formation, the Group has no less than 5 individual MEPs from several countries in order to show some element of the pan-European support necessary to justify the civil service and funding support they will get as a group from the EP.
As Nosemonkey has commented:
"...that’s five individual MEPs that the new group has to keep sweet in order to maintain the requirement for all groups to have members from at least seven member states. They can afford to lose one, and that’s it. Any more and their new group is kaput."
Now, the Tories have come under attack for the strange parties they would likely have to get into bed with to form the new group. This attack hasn't worked out for those who oppose the new grouping because the Tories could point to a few strange MEPs in all of the main EP groupings. I agree, however, with Jon Worth's assessment that it's the percentage of nuts in your party that counts.
Still, there are a number factors which will give rise to arguments that the Conservatives will have a harder time ignoring.
In the EP, committees count. There parties can play a key role in shaping legislation, and as the fourth largest party, the ECR will only be entitled to 1 committee and 1 sub-committee, and they won't get one of the more prized ones as under the D'Hondt system the bigger parties get the first few picks. It is likely that the Conservatives and the Law and Justice party will get the two chairs as the biggest parties within the group, but in return they may have to give the "independent" MEPs of the group more of the group's speaking time in plenary sessions.
Fewer Committees means less influence. And more speaking time won't offset that.
The new group is unlikely to be cohesive when the loss of 2 "independent" MEPs would result in the collapse of the group. The relevance of the group naturally depends on the cohesion of its vote. If the group cannot muster its votes for common policies/stances on legislation, then it doesn't lend the ECR much weight. It also affects some of the other factors.
The Conservatives have said that they will work together with the EPP when they can find agreement. The ECR, however, may not be an attractive partner if it cannot display a good level of cohesion - why bother chasing votes if they'll slip away when it comes to the vote? The EPP may turn back to the traditional alliance with the PES and ALDE out of habit and reliability. The ECR will have influence, however, and it would be a mistake to discount it completely. It is, after all, mainly made up of 3 parties and if they can stick together for votes then an alliance with the ECR on several issues will be worth something - I doubt that the "independents" will threaten dissolution too much if they're satisfied with talking time and office facilities.
Federalism or integrationism is hardly ever a part of the work of the EP, given that the member states decide on the level of integration and on the competences of the EU and the EP. Most of what the Parliament does has a left-right divide to it, and this will probably mean that the ECR will end up - or the Tories will end up - supporting the Commission a surprising amount of the time. In other words, they're more likely than not to be a pro-Government party, despite the rhetoric of being the "first real opposition".
This will depend on the PES to a degree - the more the PES can influence legislation, the more the ECR is likely to oppose it. Still, the Commission will be dominated by conservatives for the next five years, and is likely to produce legislation that the ECR will - or could bring itself to - vote for. There will be more regulatory impulses now due to the economic crisis, but Barroso is likely to propose quite weak regulations, and the ECR will probably try to resist attempts by other parties to strengthen Commission proposals. The ECR could end up voting the Commission's way more than its rhetoric lets on.
Also, if (when) the Tories get into government it will be harder to be obstructionist in the EP, since they can hardly build good diplomatic relations by making deals in the Council and then trying to torpedo them in Parliament.
I think that the ECR will have some influence: it will be periodically sidelined and have occasional moments when it can wield real influence - depending, of course on its ability to capitalise on such moments. The ECR could be quite an "establishment" party, in the sense that it will probably seek to back up the more conservative Council and Commission's position in Parliament, unless it sets out to be purely obstructionist. This could give rise to a strange situation where the "first real opposition" ends up defending Commission positions in times of division in the Parliament.
Finally, the lifespan of the group is hard to tell, but I'd say that it will probably survive at least until the Tories come to power in the UK, since it will be easier to indulge the "independents" while in opposition, and the collapse of the group would be a damaging story the Tories would want to avoid before the election. So failing a group crisis where it would be more embarrassing for the Conservatives to make the sacrifices necessary to keep the group going, I think it will stay alive this side of a UK general election.