The EU's chief negotiator told lawmakers on Thursday that the EU hopes to settle the impasse with Britain over Northern Ireland's trade deals by the end of February, knowing that campaigning for the province's assembly will then begin.
According to witnesses at the meeting and those briefed on it, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, who manages post-Brexit ties with Britain, told a closed session of European Parliament members that a window of opportunity for a Brexit deal was likely to close by the end of February.
Northern Ireland's assembly will be elected on May 5.
At the end of their first in-person meeting last Friday, Sefcovic and his British counterpart, Foreign Minister Liz Truss, released a rare joint EU-UK statement describing the atmosphere as "cordial."
The UK and the EU are also negotiating EU fishing rights in British waters and Gibraltar's post-Brexit situation, but Northern Ireland has proven to be the most divisive issue.
The Northern Ireland protocol governs the British province's trading arrangements, which was designed to maintain an open border between it and EU member Ireland but has effectively created one in the Irish Sea, angering the province's pro-British unionists.
According to Sefcovic, the EU and the UK agreed that the protocol may become a major issue in the Northern Ireland assembly election.
The UK wants customs procedures removed on products going from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, but the EU fears that this could open up a backdoor for British goods to enter the single trading bloc unchecked.
Sefcovic told lawmakers there was no clear progress on substance. The EU wanted guarantees and might be more flexible on checks if the UK granted it full access to data on goods transported across the Irish Sea.