The time: D-Day, 1944. The place: the fields of Normandy.
French peasant women toiling in the fields hear the faint buzz of approaching aircraft. As the planes come closer, they look to see if the formation is the Luftwaffe. Soon they see the red, blue, and white concentric circles on the side of the fighter planes - a giveaway that it is the Royal Air Force, come to the rescue of Europe.
With a long suffering sigh: ``If we had to be liberated, did we have to be liberated by the British?''
That telling anecdote, recalled some years ago by the distinguished Le Monde journalist Andr'e Fontaine, underscored the ambivalence in the relationship between Britain and Europe.
Not any more. Britain, which has traditionally kept Europe at arm's length, now seems to be embracing it. And Europe no longer questions Britain's commitment to it.
Early this year, in an act which reflected Britain's desire to bridge both the psychological and physical divide with Europe, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand signed a historic agreement to build a tunnel to connect both banks of the English Channel.
Yesterday, Mrs. Thatcher, president of the European Community (EC), came before the European Parliament as a committed European. She was commended for it.
The only real voice of criticism came from within the United Kingdom - from Northern Ireland's Rev. Ian Paisley, who hijacked the proceedings by protesting the Anglo-Irish agreement and forcing Thatcher to take her seat. She resumed unfazed several minutes later.
Speaking immediately afterwards, Jacques Delors, president of the EC Commission said: ``Britain has made a major contribution to the achievement to the internal market.'' More than once, he referred to the ``impetus'' Britain had given Europe by its ``practical, I repeat, practical approach to the problems of the [Common] Market.'' He was alluding to the lead Britain is taking in an effort to sweep away the internal barriers that impede Europe's growth and movement.
Back in London at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, European expert Helen Wallace says that ``Britain really at last looks like a normal European country. The British are no longer out of step, and that makes people feel comfortable.''
When it comes to policy decisions, Dr. Wallace says, ``the government is geared to seeing things much more through a European lens.''
Asked in an interview in his office in the European Parliament here in Strasbourg whether Britain was now a close member of the European family, President Pierre Pflimlin replied: ``Of course, the position of Great Britain is very positive.'' This was particularly true, he said, of Britain's achievements of trying to set up a genuine common market by removing restrictions ``not only for goods, but also for services, for financing, banking, and insurance.''
The octogenarian president, who was the last president of the Fourth Republic in France before handing over power to Gen. Charles de Gaulle, added he had long been a witness of Britain's evolution which now showed itself ``more interested in uniting with Europe than 20 or so years ago.''
Deputies to the European Parliament and other European experts believe there are a number of reasons for Britain's conversion to Europe:
1. Economic logic. Britain finds a coincidence of interest, particularly in economic and trade matters, when it belongs to a community now embracing 320 million people.
2. Competition. If this community, despite its much larger size, is unable to compete as vigorously as the US or Japan, then Britain believes it can take a leading role, as it has done to stimulate growth by encouraging enterprise and removing internal barriers.
According to a Downing Street source, what Britain brings to Europe is ``organization,'' which is translated here as meaning practicality and efficiency. As if sensitive to the charge that Britain lacks the visionary European idealism of, say, France or West Germany, Thatcher said: ``Some may say that we have our eyes too much on the ground rather than on the distant horizons. But you do not reach the distant horizon unless you build solid ground on which to tread.''
3. Leadership. Britain has now been an EC member long enough to know the ropes and so can play a significant, and, sometimes, leading role in European affairs.
4. Resolved dispute. Britain's ability at the 1984 Fontainebleau Summit to resolve its bitter financial quarrel with the EC through acquiring a substantial rebate for what it considered its excessive contribution for membership to the EC. The resolution put Britain on a more cooperative basis with the rest of the Community.
Says Barroness Elles, who sits in the British House of Lords as well as being a leading conservative MEP (Member of European Parliament): ``Once the battle with the budget was over, we could go ahead with policies. It was very important to get that right.''
According to one British civil servant working here, ``Britain is no longer the spoiler.'' He also spoke of the acute financial dilemma the organization now faces - it runs out of money next year - saying, ``Yes, yes, we are in a big financial crisis, but this time it is not Britain that is in the dark. They all are.''
Greece's entry - which obstructed unanimity from among the twelve on a resolution condemning Syrian terrorism, and which is often viewed as interested only in extracting benefits from the Community - has also tended to make Europeans look somewhere besides Britain for the black sheep of the European family.
Moreover, Britain's close ties with the US are now far less cause for suspicion. Too often in the past, Europeans say, Britain's political reflexes have been in support of US rather than European positions. Although Britian still tends to support the US on political and security issues, on economics and trade it is now much closer to the European stance.
``I don't think Europe sees us anymore as a stalking horse or a Trojan horse for America,'' says Dr. Wallace.
Some diplomats, like Britain's new ambassador to Washington, Sir Anthony Ackland, see no reason why Britain must be forced to make a choice between US and Europe. Instead he believes that Britain can just as easily have one foot on each side of the Atlantic.
In her carefully nuanced speech at Strasbourg, Thatcher, now the longest serving leader in the Western alliance, took care to indicate where she thought Europe's (and Britain's) priorities lay without causing offense to either her US or European partners.
She reflected broad European sentiment on two key issues that concern American-European relations.
The first, in a reference to US protectionism, was Europe's need to stand up strongly to guard its interests when threatened. The second was to ensure that the prospects for reducing nuclear weapons are ``realized without damage to European security.''
That reflected European anxiety at President Reagan's enthusiasm at the Reykjavik summit for withdrawing intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe. Europeans feel this would leave them inadequately defended against the Warsaw Pact's superiority in conventional weapons.
At the same time, Thatcher, who remains a loyal Reagan supporter, continues to emphasize that anything ``that weakens America weakens Europe.''
A French civil servant, noting Britain's embracing of a new European role, believes the country has come a long way from a headline he remembers in a British newspapers some years back.
The headline, which referred to severe weather conditions, said ``Continent Isolated.'' That amused the civil servant to no end. ``Not that Britain was isolated from the continent,'' he said, ``but that the continent was isolated from Britain.''
He says he doubts, given Britain's now less-insular approach, that such a headline would be possible these days.