Britain Is at the Crossroads on Europe

A NATIVE-BORN Englishman, I need a passport to be admitted to my own country after a 2-1/2-hour flight from Spain. But I can enter France or Portugal across an unguarded border without identification. This is just one symptom of Britain's slide into isolationism.

While most European Union countries have abolished border controls, Britain stubbornly treats the rest of Western Europe as a foreign land, maintaining checks on ''domestic'' European flights and Channel crossings.

The once-great Conservative Party that led Britain into Europe now threatens to take it out again. This policy, seriously proposed by the party's right wing, could be a vote-winner, giving the Tories a slim victory over the moderate ''new Labour Party.''

If this happens I will have to decide where my loyalties lie. Do I want to be a citizen of an isolated, declining offshore island, still clinging to delusions of being a world power? Or do I want European citizenship, with the right to live and work almost anywhere in Western Europe?

As a resident of Spain, soon to be married to a Spanish citizen, the choice isn't difficult. I will have to declare my loyalty to the country where I live by applying for Spanish nationality, thus regaining the full European citizenship that most Britons seem anxious to throw away.

Conservatives, stunned by the defection to Labour of their former government minister and research boss Alan Howarth, criticize him for not staying inside the party and fighting for change from within. Then they threaten to leave the European Union, because they don't like majority decisions arrived at by its senior representatives.

''The defense policies of this country will not be dictated to us by a council of ministers,'' roared Defense Secretary Michael Portillo at the annual Tory conference. British soldiers were willing to give their lives ''for Britain, not for Brussels,'' he said. Prime Minister John Major apparently didn't feel secure enough to withhold his applause.

Supposedly intelligent politicians fantasize about a transatlantic free-trade area as an alternative to EU membership. They choose to forget that France and Britain are now physically linked by the ''Chunnel,'' with Paris only a few hours away by direct train (yet the British still talk about going ''to Europe'').

The choice facing Britain is very clear. It can fight from within to change the undemocratic EU structure, or choose isolation.

In Brussels, a sprawling, pan-European bureaucracy shuffles paper to overregulate everything. Meanwhile, the real problems - how to create work and avoid further damage to the environment - remain largely untackled at the continentwide level.

To be seriously heeded, Britain must be seen as wholeheartedly in favor of inevitable moves toward a federal ''United States of Europe.'' British members of the toothless European Parliament should seek allies from other countries across traditional party lines to take control of policy and budgets. As a directly elected body, the Parliament has the moral right to be more than a talking shop advising unelected commissioners.

A single country needs a single currency, and Europe will eventually have one with or without Britain. If a European central bank with its own currency does not become a reality soon, the German Bundesbank and the deutsche mark will assume these roles by default.

Britons traditionally blame ''foreigners'' for all their ills. Some of these so-called ''foreigners'' are in fact third-generation immigrants from the West Indies and Asia. Right-wing Conservatives who now want to expel them ignore the fact that it was a Tory government that invited their grandparents to Britain to do the dirty jobs no English person was prepared to do.

Then there is the racist saying: ''The wogs (foreigners) begin at Calais.'' This is said as a joke, but in fact the snail- and frog-eating French are seen as a typical example of foreigners who have treacherously got the better of the British, despite being ''inferior.''

The British cling to the belief that anyone wanting to do business with them should learn English. They ignore what every marketer elsewhere in the world knows: You speak the customer's language.

This is sad, because language-teaching in Britain is certainly more communication-based than, for example, in Spain, where it is possible to obtain a university degree in English after five years of study and still not be able to speak the language.

Britain is a country rich in history and tradition, with a well-educated and skilled work force. What it lacks is the will for change that exists from necessity in countries like Taiwan and South Korea, and the realization that if you live in a country with few natural resources you have to get out and sell the services you're good at providing.

Outside Europe, Britain might survive by selling itself as an increasingly quaint and old-fashioned tourist destination, and by offering offshore financial services, like a giant Gibraltar or Cayman Islands. Inside Europe, it could be a moderately prosperous state within one of the most powerful federations in the world, with a key influence in decisions.

Europe will have come of age, however, only when we stop thinking in nationalistic terms and people seek like-minded political allies or business partners wherever they happen to live: Sicily, Edinburgh, or Stockholm.

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