The EU's chief Brexit negotiator has signalled that the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations with the UK could draw to a close by the end of February if there is no breakthrough.

This would be because of the Northern Ireland Assembly Election campaign, which is expected to get under way in early March.

MEPs believe the EU is reluctant to continue the negotiations during what is expected to be a highly charged election campaign in Northern Ireland.

Maroš Šefčovič briefed members of the European Parliament’s UK Coordination Group this morning about his meeting with the UK's chief Brexit negotiator, Liz Truss, in Kent last week.

"The EU doesn't want to get dragged into the Northern Ireland election campaign if this isn't resolved by the end of February," said one MEP present.

While the EU has tried to avoid deadlines in the current phase of relations with the UK over the Northern Ireland issue, it is understood there is concern over the election campaign, and the subsequent wrangling to form a new Executive in Northern Ireland which, it is feared, could take some time.

While it is understood that Ms Truss has signalled she hoped a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol could be reached by the end of February, there are concerns on the EU side that the time frame is too short, as London and Brussels remain far apart on key issues.


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Both sides have been discussing a range of proposals published by the European Commission in October designed to alleviate some of the burdens of the protocol, including the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland and the free-flow of medicines.

The UK has said the proposals do not go far enough, and has demanded more far-reaching changes to the protocol.

It is understood the European Commission vice-president told MEPs that there was an improved tone and atmosphere in the talks, which took place in Chevening House last Thursday and Friday morning.

However, Mr Šefčovič is understood to have expressed frustration at Ms Truss's focus on the state aid aspects of the protocol, which require the UK to notify the EU of instances where Northern Ireland firms, or UK firms with subsidiaries in Northern Ireland, are granted state aid.

It is understood the EU regards this as a new focus, even though the UK raised its objection to the state aid provisions within the protocol in its Command Paper published last July.

Ms Truss will be in Brussels next Monday for a second round of talks with Mr Šefčovič.

He told MEPs that the EU had made far reaching and concrete proposals on reducing the level of checks and controls on goods, as well as customs formalities.

He is said to have told MEPs that the European Commission had offered an "oven-ready deal".

Meanwhile, next Monday's meeting of the European Parliament delegation to the post-Brexit Parliamentary Partnership Assembly (PPA), comprising British and EU lawmakers, has been cancelled.

The 36 MEPs in the European Parliament delegation were due to hold an exchange of views with senior European Commission and UK officials on the state of play in the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations, and on the rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice-versa.

The meeting has been cancelled because of the presence of British Foreign Secretary Ms Truss in Brussels and because the senior officials who were due to speak will instead be taking part in the negotiations.

While the European Parliament delegation to the EU-UK PPA has been approved by the parliament, the UK delegation has yet to be confirmed, it is understood due to wrangling over spaces being allocated to Scottish, Northern Ireland and Welsh MPs.