Jean-Claude Juncker insisted on the need to limit freedom of the press, accusing the British media of violating the human rights of politicians.
In a candid interview at a critical moment in the Brexit talks, the European Commission President also lamented that former Prime Minister David Cameron blocked him from campaigning during the 2016 referendum.
“If the commission intervened, perhaps the right questions would have entered the debate,” Juncker told a group of Austrian newspapers. “Now you discover new problems almost daily, on both sides. At that time, it was already clear to us what trials and tribulations this pitiful vote of the British would lead to. I am always amazed about what I am always blamed for.”
Juncker, 63, has been the focus for attacks in the media over his reputed fondness for alcohol, and his father’s record during the second world war.
Joseph Juncker, who died in 2016, was forced to fight in the German Wehrmacht after the Nazi regime invaded Luxembourg. He has been inaccurately accused by British newspapers of being a sympathiser of Adolf Hitler’s regime.
The commission president was accused in recent months of being drunk at a Nato summit in Brussels following the emergence of a video that showed him unable to walk without assistance.
His spokesman insisted that a bad case of sciatica and cramps had been to blame. Juncker himself appealed for “respect” after questions were raised about his health.
The former prime minister of Luxembourg, whose appointment as commission president was vehemently opposed by Cameron and a significant number of UK newspapers, said in his latest interview that while he was determined to strike a deal with Theresa May he was not sorry that the UK media would be less of a significant force in Brussels.
“The British press is such that I will not miss it,” Juncker said. “It is, in part so, that they do not respect the human rights of political actors at all. Press freedom also has its limits … One should not bring people in privacy in distress.”
Juncker, whose term as commission president will end next year, went on: “Incidentally, the Cameron government had asked me not to interfere in this 2016 referendum campaign.
“In the meantime, I regret that the commission did not want to do it, because that was the British wish.”
In the wake of Juncker’s nomination as commission president in 2014, Cameron had admitted he would face an uphill struggle to keep Britain in the EU, claiming that the new EU chief had been a force for weakening the standing of the member states. Only the hard-right Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, backed the UK’s opposition to the president.
Juncker nevertheless struck a more optimistic note in his interview about the Brexit negotiations, with a crucial leaders’ summit less than two months away.
The EU has said that it needs to see “maximum progress” by the European council meeting on 17 October, in particular on the Irish border issue. The summit in Brussels has been described by EU leaders as the “moment of truth” in the Brexit talks.
Juncker told reporters in Austria – the current holder of the rolling presidency of the European council – that recent days had provided some cause for optimism in the talks. A summit in mid-November has been pencilled in should an agreement not be possible in October.
Juncker said: “I think we need to refrain from this scenario of a no-deal. That would not be good for the UK as it is [not] for the rest of the union.
“I assume that we find an agreement as to the terms of the withdrawal. We also need to agree on a political statement that accompanies this withdrawal agreement. We are not that far yet.
“But our will is unbroken to reach agreement with the British government. It must be remembered time and again that Britain is leaving the union, not the European Union from the UK.
He added: “I have reason to think that the rapprochement potential between both sides has increased in recent days. But it can not be foreseen whether we will finish in October. If not, we’ll do it in November.”
Juncker declined to comment on whether he believed that Brexit might yet be avoided, given the divisions in the British government and parliament on the issue.
He said: “That is not a question that concerns the commission or the union as such. That is in the discretion of the British parliament and the government. I do not interfere in inner-cabinet debates in the UK. There is enough confusion.”