Jean-Claude Juncker rebuked Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Tuesday, accusing him of giving his voters a deliberately distorted version of proposals the EU chief executive had made to resolve Athens' debt crisis.
he flash of anger, as European Commission President Juncker prefaced an answer at a news conference by saying he cared about Greece's people but not its government, was in sharp contrast to his efforts over the past four months to befriend the novice leftist premier in the course of tortuous negotiations.
Underlining the sour mood between Athens and Brussels, the Greek finance minister insisted the government had not twisted Juncker's position and said the veteran EU dealmaker was either unaware of his staff's proposals or his memory was failing.
With Greece struggling to avoid a default in two weeks that could bounce it out of the euro, Tsipras had fulminated earlier to his parliamentary allies that EU and IMF creditors were demanding pension cuts and tax hikes to "humiliate not only the Greek government ... but humiliate an entire people."
Among lenders' proposals, he said, was a 10-percentage point increase in the value-added tax on electricity. Other ministers have criticised suggestions to hike VAT on medicines.
At a news briefing in Brussels, Juncker, 60, effectively accused the 40-year-old Tsipras of misleading voters.
"I don't care about the Greek government," he said. "I do care about the Greek people, mainly the poorest part."
"I'm not in favour, and the prime minister knows that, ... of increasing VAT on medicaments and electricity," he said. "This would be a major mistake."
"The debate in Greece and outside Greece would be easier if the Greek government would tell exactly what the Commission ... are really proposing," Juncker continued. "I'm blaming the Greeks (for) tell(ing) things to the Greek public which are not consistent with what I told the Greek prime minister."
A Greek government spokesman said it had never said the proposals were the Commission's alone. Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis was combative, saying EU proposals did include VAT hikes: "Juncker either hadn't read the document he gave Tsipras," he said. "Or he read it and forgot about it."
Juncker said he had not spoken to Tsipras since late on Sunday, "when I decided to stop the negotiations because the negotiations, given the Greek position, were getting nowhere."
Last week, the former Luxembourg premier made clear his disillusion with Tsipras and fears for Europe's single currency.
"In order to remain friends, one has to respect some minimum rules," Juncker said. "I've always tried to build bridges. But I'm still waiting for Greece to build its part of the bridge."