BRITONS desiring confirmation that their prime minister behaved like an enlightened statesman at the Maastricht summit had better stick to reading their own country's newspapers rather than those of continental Europe.What even the Labour-leaning Guardian called a diplomatic triumph for John Major, a Conservative, was almost universally dismissed in the rest of Europe as a Pyrrhic victory, or worse. While Britain's prime minister was reading in the Times of London about the "emphatic success" of his "new European diplomacy," France's Nouvel Observateur was telling its readers that it had been a mistake to let Britain join the European Community (EC) in the first place. "She dreams of nothing but disabling it," the newspaper declared. The chasm of perceptions across the English Channel illustrates the problems Britain still has meshing its aims and attitudes with those of its EC partners. If the London papers were to be believed, Mr. Major's great achievement at Maastricht had been negative: sidestepping commitments to a single European currency and to a "social chapter" guaranteeing workers' rights in the Community. But for other Europeans this double opt-out was deplorable. Noting Major's aversion to the social chapter, Germany's Suddeutsche Zeitung asked: "Can a conference be called a success when it is the country that is putting on the brakes that is happiest?" Major eschewed a single currency and the social chapter, in part, because he wanted to cut the ground from under his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. She had threatened to lead a rebellion if he agreed to either. But there were deeper reasons. Back from Maastricht, Major last Wednesday told the House of Commons that he had saved the other Europeans from making fatal blunders. It was better to proceed pragmatically to political and economic unity, he argued, than to set unattainable goals. The social charter opt-out says a lot about British perspectives. Eleven years of Thatcherism has diminished the power of the trade unions and made Britain an attractive haven for United States, Japanese, and other investment. Acceptance of a maximum 48-hour week and of rights for part-time workers, Major told the other EC leaders, would "let socialism back in through the back door." Thus what to the rest of the EC was progressive Community legislation was perceived by Major as a threat to Britain's economy. For France's Le Monde, his "merciless and exaggerated attack" on the charter had "almost brought the whole edifice down," while in London, the Times called the continental preoccupation with workers' rights "obsessive navel gazing." Not all Britons take that view. As well as being pragmatists, they like to think they have a sense of humor. A cartoon in one London paper showed an owner with his cat at an open door, asking: "Do you want to opt in or opt out?" Another paper suggested that Major had been clever to demonstrate that the other 11 EC members were again isolated. As it happens, British public opinion seems to be more in tune with continental thinking than is the British press. Asked by pollsters for the Independent on Sunday whether Major's diplomacy had been the success most British newspapers claimed, Britons' response over the weekend appeared to be "not really." Despite Major's Maastricht "triumph," there was only a single percentage point between the ruling Conservatives and Labour - and that, statisticians say, makes a general election too close to call.