BRITONS LEAN MORE TO THE US THAN TO EUROPE
TO hear the British talk, you'd think the Atlantic Ocean was narrower than the English Channel. Many inhabitants of this island nation feel closer to the United States (despite frequent private tut-tutting here at US attitudes and foreign policies) than to the continent of Europe.Skip to next paragraph
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''The channel might seem very small,'' remarked Lord Carrington, the urbane former foreign secretary, in an interview recently, ''but psychologically it is quite a large affair.''
Time and time again you hear people say they really don't care for the manners of the French, or the bravura of the Italians, or the stolidity of the Germans, or the staidness of the Belgians. Nor do they think much of the way the Brussels bureaucracy of the Common Market can make rules that impede British sovereignty.
This remains an island nation, mentally as well as geographically. It is an outpost of Protestant ideas on the edge of a largely Roman Catholic Europe.
It is, in a word, separate.
Its newspapers, radio, and television, with only a few exceptions such as the BBC External Services, carry relatively little in-depth analysis of European news, and hardly any at all about the Republic of Ireland.
Britain is a member of the Common Market, but judging by the frequent complaints here about rising food prices and high-handed directives from Brussels, Britain's heart is not fully engaged.
Recent polls show almost half the population wanting to leave or feeling the market was a ''bad thing.'' Younger and more affluent Britons favor membership.
Apart from anything else, the British cannot just slip into Europe on the spur of the moment the way Europeans can drive across a border to shop or have a meal.
My family, staying in Antwerp on vacation, once had breakfast in Belgium, lunch in southern Holland, dinner in Aachen, West Germany, and drove back to Antwerp all in one day. But if you are in Britain, first you have to cross the channel. That takes planning, time, and money.
The British can fly, but European air fares are considerably higher than American fares of equal distance, and British incomes are lower than those in the US. If they reach the channel by rail or road, Britons find the average cost of a summer crossing, according to one survey, is (STR)2 and 77 pence per mile -- eight times more expensive per mile than flying the supersonic Concorde 3,400 miles to New York.
A family of four has to pay what for many people is a week's wages -- upward of (STR)100 ($140) -- in summer just to get itself and its average-sized car across the 22 miles from Dover to Calais.
Nonetheless, the Common Market's 270 million people are too powerful a magnet to be ignored. Like it or not, they are Britain's biggest market now.
So British attitudes appear to be changing somewhat - at least, their replies to pollsters are.
In a 1969 Gallup poll 34 percent put United Kingdom ties with the US ahead of those with Europe (only 21 percent put Europe first). A November 1983 poll showed the reverse: 40 percent said Europe mattered more, and only 26 percent stuck with the US.
Moreover, necessity and the slowly rising level of income mean that more and more Britons are taking the trip to the Continent regardless.
When the Gallup organization took a poll in August 1983, it found that 53 percent of people here had visited France (up from 32 percent in 1968). Thirty-eight percent had been to Spain (12 percent in 1968), and 34 percent to West Germany (20 percent).
Deep down, however, many a Briton appears to keep his distance. A recent debate at the Oxford Union was on the partly humorous, partly serious subject, ''Better dead than French.'' The motion was carried by 27 votes to 19 although (or perhaps because) one opposer spoke entirely in French.
I once asked an acquaintance why, if the British felt so separate, so many took car and caravan (trailer) to France, for instance.
''My dear chap,'' he replied, ''I love France. Go there all the time. Splendid place. It's the French people I have difficulty with. . . . I adore Italy, but the Italians, . . . well. . . . Belgium? Good food, but the Belgian people are, well. . . .''