BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - An upcoming European vote will give the European Commission a chance to boost the legitimacy of its executive arm, granting it a stronger mandate to command a sustainable economic recovery, Slovakia's leading candidate said in an interview.
Critics say the European Union has a major drawback as its key institution, the Commission, is not directly elected. To address that, some governments want their candidates for commissioners to run in European elections in May before the new executive is formed in November.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico took that route on Saturday, nominating Maros Sefcovic, current European Commission vice president, to lead his center-left party's European ticket and making him the country's official candidate for the next Commission.
Sefcovic told Reuters the "democratic deficit" of the Commission's actions had been regularly raised in the past four years.
"The recent strengthening of European integration means the Commission is playing more and more a political role and all of Europe needs to boost democratic legitimacy more than ever," said Sefcovic, interviewed in his Brussels office late on Thursday.
Sefcovic, a 47-year-old career diplomat who speaks English, French, Russian and German, is not alone in having such ideas. Olli Rehn, the Commission's economic chief, will also enter the race and other commissioners could also enter the election.
Picking a successor to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will also for the first time be linked to European elections under the EU's Lisbon Treaty, in effect since 2009.
Sefcovic has always cooperated with center-left socialists and democrats in the European Parliament, which have nominated parliament President Martin Schulz as leading candidate for the next Commission president.
Both Schulz and Sefcovic say it is essential for Europe to restore citizens' trust in the EU, given two thirds of Europeans consider their voice does not count in the union and only 31 percent trust it, according to a EU survey.
The EU's executive arm, with a staff of 30,000, plays a pivotal role in the 28-nation bloc as the guardian of laws. Unlike the European Parliament, it can propose new legislation.
The Commission also wields power over global corporations through anti-trust oversight and has influence over the fiscal policies of the 18 euro zone states.
Yet its top officials have so far been nominated by governments and never had to pass the test of a popular vote.
"We want the European Commission, as some kind of a European government, to have bigger legitimacy," Fico said in Bratislava on Saturday when announcing Sefcovic's nomination.
Sefcovic, a keen sportsman who runs and plays tennis, has been responsible for inter-institutional relations among EU bodies and has represented the Commission in negotiations with European labor unions and lobby groups.
"Maros Sefcovic has done a tremendous job as vice-president of the Commission. He is widely respected by his fellow commissioners and other political personalities," said Commission spokesman Koen Doens.
Another senior European Commission official said Sefcovic had been a key player between the Commission, the parliament and abroad thanks to his diplomatic and networking skills.
"The overall line (for the Commission) will be job creation," Sefcovic, a doctor of law with three children who has served as Slovak ambassador to the EU and Israel, said.
"Should the incoming commission have a tag-line it should be an acceleration of the economic recovery based on growing competitiveness and sustainable growth," he added.
Europe is slowly recovering from an economic crisis which wiped out hundreds of thousands of jobs and forced five euro zone countries into the arms of international lenders.
Growth in Europe picked up slightly at the end of last year, but officials remain worried about high unemployment, especially among the young.
"The European economy has started growing again, but if we fail to restart job creation, big political tensions will prevail," Sefcovic said.
Editing by Jason Hovet and David Holmes