By Daphne Psaledakis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Maros Sefcovic, a Slovak currently overseeing EU energy policy, announced on Monday his bid for the presidency of the European Commission, the bloc's top job, vowing to tackle the "barbed-wire" mentality he said still divided the continent.
But his criticism of what he called "simplistic solutions" to problems such as migration proposed by right-wing populists drew a swift retort from Italy's anti-immigrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who complained that Brussels had long ignored Rome's requests for help in taking in asylum seekers.
The current head of the EU's executive Commission, Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker, will step down next year. His successor must be agreed by leaders of the EU member states following elections to the European Parliament next May.
Their nominee must then be confirmed by EU lawmakers before taking up the reins in November 2019. Earlier this month, German conservative Manfred Weber, an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, also announced his candidacy for Juncker's job.
"We have to get rid of barbed-wire fences in our minds," Sefcovic, a 52-year-old Social Democrat, told a news conference, referring to the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe into east and west during his youth.
The Moscow-educated diplomat, who has worked in Brussels since Slovakia joined the EU in 2004, is seeking the nomination of the EU Parliament's second biggest party, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.
Sefcovic, who is a vice-president of the current Commission, said politicians must try harder to understand why more Europeans were responding to far-right messages and do more to overcome divisions between the east, west, north and south of the continent.
"Across Europe we hear about simplistic solutions built on populist, anti-European or xenophobic views," Sefcovic said. "They thrive on divisions and they often play with fire, eager to destroy our European cooperation, our European dream."
Italy's Salvini, at odds with the Commission on migration policy, was quick to respond on Twitter.
"Now they are interested in us, but for years they have ignored Italy's requests for help to stop the landings of migrants," wrote Salvini, whose League party came to power earlier this year on promises to curb the migrant arrivals.
Italy has taken in some 650,000 Mediterranean migrants since 2014, U.N. data shows. While arrivals have since fallen sharply, the issue continues to drive the EU's political agenda.
Opinion polls suggest far-right parties will gain ground in next year's European Parliament elections, in which French President Emmanuel Macron has cast himself as a standard-bearer for pro-EU, liberal forces.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Gareth Jones)