EU defends Juncker’s ‘cool style’

Aides to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker went to his defence Tuesday for shirking protocol when he greeted leaders at an EU summit last week, saying he was known for his “cool style.”

At the opening of the Riga summit on Friday, a light-hearted and tactile Juncker kissed leaders on the head, fiddled with their ties, saluted, and slapped them not just on the back but also on the stomach, chest and face.

“He’s known for his very informal and often cool style,” Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters, triggering laughter.

He added that Juncker, a 35-year veteran of the European political scene, “knows personally and very well” all the leaders with whom he has a relationship of “mutual trust”.

Juncker also teased Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban over his strongman reputation, jokingly greeting him as “dictator”.

Orban replied: “Hello Grand Duke,” a reference to Juncker’s native Luxembourg, known as the Grand Duchy even though it is one of the smallest countries in the world.

Schinas declined to comment on what Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, really thought of Orban’s policies.

The right-wing Orban has infuriated his EU peers for years, carrying out sweeping constitutional and institutional changes that critics say have curbed press freedom and judicial authority.

Most recently Orban has stirred controversy by proposing to debate reintroducing the death penalty, which is banned throughout the EU, in Hungary.

Among his more striking greetings, Juncker slapped Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn hard on the cheek, kissed Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on his bald head, and stretched his tie over the tie-less neck of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

He also wondered aloud about the identity of visitors and complained of wasting his time during the greeting ceremony.

“It was the fun part of a very long and boring welcome process,” Schinas said.

Juncker is known to use his sense of humour and frankness to achieve compromise in the EU, but his behaviour has triggered accusations that he has a penchant for alcohol, which he denies.

He assumed his role as head of the commission, the executive of the 28-nation EU, in November 2014 after his conservative EPP bloc won the European elections. [AFP]

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