EU commission sets up Brexit unit
By Honor Mahony
The European Commission has sent a strong political signal to London by appointing a special team to take charge of relations with the UK in the run-up to its referendum on EU membership.
Jonathan Faull, a lawyer and one of Britain's top civil servants in the commission, will head up the new unit, which officially starts its work on 1 September.
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Kristalina Georgieva, commissioner in charge of the decision, said the new set-up is a "recognition of the significance of the work to be done".
"Our relations with the UK as it prepares for a referendum are very important," she said.
Faull's job will be to mediate between civil servants in Brussels and those in London.
He will "lead our work as issue after issue comes to our intention, in terms of what the expectations of the UK are for reforms of the European Union, what is possible [and] how we can meet each other," said Georgieva.
The UK has said it wants changes to rules governing access to social welfare benefits by non-UK EU citizens, to protect the City of London from EU laws, and to ringfence rules on the single market, which it feels may be threatened by euro states.
After the negotiations, the UK government plans to have a poll on whether the country should stay an EU member - the referendum is meant to take place by end of 2017 but may take place as early as autumn next year.
The new 'Brexit unit' is part of a wider reshuffle in the European Commission which sees the longstanding and powerful secretary general, Irish woman Catherine Day, retiring from her post at the end of August. She will be replaced by a Dutch man, Alexander Italianer, who until now was heading up the anti-trust unit.
Day, who was secretary general during the EU's 10-state enlargement in 2004 and then throughout the financial crisis, was given an "emotional send-off" on Wednesday. Virtually every dossier in the commission went across her desk.
"She played a crucial role in helping this new commission to start at full speed," said commission president Jean-Claude Juncker while Georgieva said Day is leaving "big shoes to fill".
Of the 33 director generals - who head up individual commission departments - 23 will remain in place. The criteria for choosing whether people stay or go included whether their jobs were highly sensitive or very busy (such as the migration unit), as well as individual preference.
Two women were promoted to director general posts - Germany's Marianne Klingbeil, who will be in charge of regulatory scrutiny, and France's Monique Pariat, in charge of humanitarian aid.
But Georgieva admitted that there are not enough women in top jobs.
"We have unfortunately started with a very modest pipeline of senior women", she said.
She likened the gender picture to the shape of a vase with many women at lower positions, fewer in the middle, and rather more at the top.
"Call on me within the next six to eight months and you will see [a] change. Our target is 40 percent women in middle and senior management positions by 2019."
Georgieva also conceded that newer member states were still under-represented.
But she said the "big problem" is older member states, who will shortly see a batch of "senior staff" retiring "pretty much around the same time".