Strasburg, January 15 - Joseph Daul, caucus leader of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament on Tuesday gave his official backing to the bid by Italy's outgoing technocrat premier Mario Monti to return to office in elections at the end of February. Early this year Monti threw his hat into the ring at the helm of a small centrist grouping that includes the centrist Catholic UDC led by Pierferdinando Casini and the tiny FLI of the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (lower house), Gianfranco Fini. ''The EPP's candidate is Mr Monti,'' said Daul. ''But, as always in Italy, the situation is very complicated because we also have UDC and (Silvio) Berlusconi's party, which are all members of the EPP,'' he added. Daul also stood by comments made in December against ex- premier Berlusconi, who is currently leading the centre right's election campaign, for his alleged populist and anti-European stance. ''I have never made statements to the wind and so you can be sure that my opinion has not changed,'' said the Frenchman. ''It's just that by attacking Mr Berlusconi every day I do not want to give him reason to attack me back and talk about 'this horrible Europe', 'this horrible Merkel' or 'these horrible French' and say 'see how they behave'. Now that we are into the election campaign I want to respect voters and Italian citizens. And I do not need to gift 2-3% to populism,'' Daul concluded. His comments were slammed by several representatives of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party. Berlusconi, who has has challenged Monti's endorsement by the EPP, on Monday stressed his credentials as a Catholic candidate, saying he attended Mass daily.
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