Belgium's main Flemish separatist party New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) warned Saturday that it wanted complete autonomy for the Flanders region if it wins legislative elections slated for May 2014.
Victory by the N-VA would mean that "Francophone parties will have to take our conclusions into account," Geert Bourgeois, one of the party's founders and the deputy leader of the Flanders regional government, told the Dutch-language paper De Standaard.
"It is what happens in a marriage. If one partner says 'I want that' and the other says 'no', then it is over," he said.
Led by the outspoken nationalist Bart de Wever, the N-VA made big gains in local elections in November and is widely expected to perform well next year, with the latest polls giving the nationalists 40 percent of the vote.
It was the biggest party at the last general election in Flanders two years ago, with some 28 percent of the vote. But it refused to join talks to form a government that needed more than 500 days of horse-trading to nail down the present coalition led by Elio Di Rupo.
De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp, has made no secret of his aim for a separate Flemish republic anchored in Europe, with both Flanders and Wallonia to be autonomous.
The push for greater autonomy is buoyed by popular sentiment that the richer Dutch-speaking north is financially supporting poorer French-speaking Walloons.
Bourgeois did not use the word "independence", but made clear he envisioned Flanders taking over much of the federal government's scope.
"Everything must be transferred to Flanders: finance, employment, social security... simply everything," he said.
"At last the final, historic negotiations are going to start. Flanders and Wallonia must become autonomous and decide what they still want to do together, such as managing Brussels."
Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, is located in Flemish territory but is overwhelmingly French-speaking. The N-VA wants it to "remain the capital of the (Flemish) community", said Bourgeois.
But the Minister-President, or leader, of the Flanders regional government, the Christian-Democrat Kris Peeters, was careful to temper his colleague's comments, telling Dutch private television channel VTM that "an independent Flanders is not in the Flemish (people's) interests".
French-speaking politicians reacted defiantly to Bourgeois's comments.
Belgium's Minister of Social Affairs, Laurette Onkelinx, accused the N-BA of "showing its true face" after having softened its discourse in recent months in a bid to win support among Francophone politicians.
The leader of the Reformist Movement, Charles Michel, said Belgium's French-speaking contingent "would never let Brussels go".