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One Europe: The Dream of Unity : National Agenda : Despite Integration, Britain Remains an Island Unto Itself : Distrust of their continental neighbors has caused the English to adopt a cautious approach toweard implementation of Common Market ideas.


LONDON — While probably apocryphal, the anecdote about the headline on a long-ago British weather story is famous. "Fog Closes Channel," it supposedly read. "Continent Isolated."

Apocryphal or not, says Sidney Bearman, an editor at the prestigious International Institute of Strategic Studies here, the story reflects a common attitude in this proud island nation, separated by the English Channel from its continental neighbors since the Ice Age. "It's not the island that's cut off--it's everyone else."

And perhaps nowhere has the evidence of that attitude been more apparent than in the history of Britain's stormy relationship with the European Community.

Britain became the "Odd Man Out" from the birth of what is today the EC, rejecting terms of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. When, impressed by the EC's initial success, it finally applied for membership four years later, it ran afoul of France and the late President Charles de Gaulle. It wasn't until Jan. 1, 1973, that Britain was finally admitted into the Community--along with Denmark and Ireland.

Membership didn't end British reservations about the EC, however. Fully one-third of the population refused in a 1975 referendum to endorse EC ties, for example, and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher delighted in denigrating favorite initiatives of the Brussels-based Community as "socialism through the back door."

Just weeks before she resigned in November, 1990, Thatcher said her fellow European leaders, who endorsed the principle of a single European currency, must be living in "cloud cuckoo land."

While Thatcher's successor, John Major, is friendlier to the idea of greater European integration, Britain still acts as a brake on those continental leaders who would accelerate the process.

As a German diplomat based in London put it: "British public opinion can be confusing about the EC--and Europeans in general. Young people in my country look upon a united Europe as a desirable dream. Here it's often regarded as a disease."

If Britain is puzzling to continental Europeans, they are equally mystifying to many Britons.

"I think there are some definite cultural problems that go quite deep," said Robert Elphick, a Briton who works for the European Community in London. "On a basic level, the British are aware that they feel immediately at home in the United States, Canada and Australia--many thousands of miles away. But they travel only 20 miles away, to Calais in France, and they find themselves among people with a different language, different customs and different almost everything else."

At its worst, the British attitude toward outsiders has a racist tinge. "Wogs begin at Calais," according to one old British adage based on a contemptuous slang term for foreigners.

Britain's popular tabloid press--which enjoys far higher circulation than the so-called "quality" press--often seems to pander to the most xenophobic of readers. What other paper anywhere, one wonders, would headline a story about a new proposal by the EC's French president, Jacques Delors: "Up Yours, Delors." Britain's Sun newspaper did.

The Sun sells nearly four million copies a day, and as Bernard Ingham, Thatcher's former press secretary, points out: "A quarter of the adult population in this country get their political news from the Sun, if you count how many people read it each day. That's something to think about."

The tabloids like nothing better than Europe bashing--whether in reaction to an EC proposal to change regulations that might affect Britons, or when charging Germans at mass-market Spanish resorts with grabbing all the pool loungers before the sleepy Brits get out of bed.

Suspicion of their continental neighbors is not restricted to Britain's tabloid class, however. Britons of virtually any station are likely to contrast themselves with "Europeans"--as if the French, Spanish, Germans and others were part of a different landmass.

Says one London woman: "These really are crummy first-generation democracies in Europe--while we have been a stable democracy for how many hundred years? Why, really, are we supposed to take our lead from the likes of them?"

"I don't really think we trust the French and Italians," adds another British woman who has lived on the Continent. "The war experience remains very strong among us. We think the French and Italians let us down in World War II. And, of course, we fought the wretched Germans twice. I think if it were not for the obvious benefits of European Community trade, we would prefer to stay here on our own little island."

As for relations with the EC itself, political experts note Britain's late entry into the Community. "It's the only major group they are a member of where they didn't help write the rules," said an EC official, recalling London's role as leader of the British Commonwealth and pivotal member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "Some countries feel Britain is still trying to rewrite the EC rules."

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