July 13, 2018 / 2:29 PM / 4 months ago

EU slams 'tasteless' speculation on Juncker's health

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker suffered a painful sciatica attack at a NATO summit this week, a commission spokesman said on Friday, dismissing as “more than tasteless” media speculation that he was drunk.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker arrives for the second day of a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

Comment raised by a video of the EU chief executive staggering and being aided by other leaders on Wednesday evening prompted the German government to insist it had a “very high level of confidence” in Juncker, who will represent the European Union at trade talks in China, Japan and the United States later this month.

The Commission’s chief spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, told reporters that Juncker held a full programme of meetings this week and would fly as planned to China and Japan next week. He is expected to hold crunch talks in Washington later in the month to try to resolve a trade dispute with the White House.

“On Wednesday night, he suffered a particularly painful attack of sciatica, accompanied by cramps,” Schinas said, adding that Juncker thanked the Dutch and Portuguese prime ministers for helping him from a podium erected for a group photograph.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday that Juncker had back trouble at the summit and that he did not seem drunk.

Juncker, 63, has previously himself spoken of back and leg pain and serious injuries he suffered in a car accident in 1989. He makes no secret of enjoying a drink but dismisses allegations he has an alcohol problem — notably aired in British media when London was trying to block his EU appointment four years ago.

People present during the Brussels summit, which was marked by rows between U.S. President Donald Trump and European leaders over military spending, said Juncker, a former long-serving prime minister of Luxembourg, had played a full part in talks.

However, a senior member of the British delegation to the NATO talks told British reporters after the dinner: “He looked like he was either completely trolleyed (drunk) or ill.”

Media in Germany, where business is anxious for Juncker to defend its car exports from new tariffs in talks with the Trump administration, and in Britain, where he has long been a target for anti-EU Brexit supporters, carried unflattering pictures, including one of Juncker in a wheelchair before a NATO dinner.

“I think it’s more than tasteless that some press try to make an insulting headline by exploiting President Juncker’s pain,” Schinas said told a daily news briefing, dismissing any suggestion that Juncker was suffering the effects of drink. “I don’t think this is elegant and I don’t think this is fair.”

Reporting by Julia Echikson and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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