'Hello dictator,' Juncker says to Hungary's Orban

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) is greeted by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker during a European Union summit in the Latvian capital Riga, on May 22, 2015 (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)
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Riga (AFP) - European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker teased Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban over his strongman reputation Friday, jokingly greeting him as "dictator" as he arrived at an EU summit in Riga.

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

"Hello, dictator," Juncker was overheard to say to Orban in front of the press at the EU-Eastern Partnership summit in Latvia.

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.

Orban's spokesman Bertalan Havasi told AFP that the two men enjoyed the banter.

"Orban usually greets Juncker like that. It has been like that for years," Havasi said.

Juncker was in a playful mood as he received EU leaders alongside EU president Donald Tusk and Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma.

Juncker also chided Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras for his dress sense, with the left-winger declining to wear a tie as usual.

The dictator jibe from Juncker recalled a bitter row caused by US Republican Senator John McCain who labelled Orban a "neofascist dictator" in December last year. Orban called McCain's remarks an "attack on national independence".

The Hungarian leader again angered EU lawmakers and officials this week by insisting that Budapest had the right to debate closing the door to migrants and reintroducing the death penalty.

"Hungarians talk straight about tough things. We don't like to beat about the bush. We are a frank people," Orban said on a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

Officials in Juncker's office said they had not heard what he had said to Orban.