BRUSSELS, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Jean-Claude Juncker, the gaffe-prone head of the European Commission, on Monday highlighted the difficulty the EU has in dealing with the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan with a joke at its president's expense.
"Thank you, have a nice day," Juncker told reporters at the end of a news conference. "I will now see the president of Azerbaijan so the nice part of the day is over."
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev was in Brussels to discuss new pipelines that would carry Azeri gas to Europe. Baku is keen to tap into the bloc's market of 500 million people and the EU is equally eager to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.
But at home, Aliyev - in office since 2003 - is accused of centralising too much power in his hands, heavily restricting free speech and cracking down on independent media.
Azeri officials were not immediately available to comment on Juncker's remark.
Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg who has headed the EU's executive Commission since 2014, is well-known for his light-hearted quips and flouting of diplomatic protocol.
Just last Friday, replying to a journalist's question as to what posed the biggest threat to the EU, the veteran Brussels insider joked: "Me."
Juncker once greeted Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is accused by critics of stifling dissent at home, by saying: "Hello dictator!"
Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council that represents the 28 member states of the EU, stuck to more diplomatic language during his joint news conference with the Azeri president earlier on Monday.
"During our talks, I stressed the importance we attach to human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. The EU believes that an open society is the best guarantee for long-term stability and prosperity," Tusk said. (Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones)