(Adds Juncker spokeswoman)
BRUSSELS Feb 6 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
"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 own hands, heavily
restricting free speech and cracking down on independent media.
Azeri officials were not immediately available to comment on
Juncker's remark. But his spokeswoman said the two discussed
energy and economic cooperation, and that Juncker highlighted
the need for respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg who has
headed the EU's executive Commission since 2014, is known for
his quips and flouting of diplomatic protocol.
Last Friday, replying to a journalist's question as to what
posed the biggest threat to the EU, the veteran Brussels insider
Juncker once greeted Hungarian 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," Tusk said. "The EU believes that an open society is
the best guarantee for long-term stability and prosperity."
(Additional reporting by Waverly Colville, Writing by Gabriela
Baczynska, Editing by Gareth Jones and Robin Pomeroy)