London. -- Who are the British? What do they want? Are they Europeans committed to a destiny shared with the other states on the ancient continent? Or are they something else -- Atlanticists, a people with one hand extended across the English Channel, the other groping westward across the ocean in solidarity with the English-speaking democracies?
Or are they, as their greatest poet described them, a special breed apart, a people living in "This little world," content with their separateness?
These questions are not entirely fanciful. In the last 35 years they have returned again and again to trouble the British soul. They are answered by successive governments, even by the people themselves in referendum, but still they remain unresolved. Now they are back again.
What do the British want?
There is a bright Spanish diplomat in this town who suspects that Britain is in search of itself during this new period of indecision. "They can't seem to find their identity," he said.
This is a lot to say of the people who more than any other in the world always seemed to know who they were, the people who made the ostentatious assertion of self confidence a key element of their personal style.
Now the power to order events in the world is greatly diminished. Britain is reduced, having been drained by two global wars, a world depression, and too many years living beyond its means.
"If they do not choose correctly they are going to be alone, isolated," said the Spanish diplomat. Spain has an ongoing dispute with Britain, over possession of Gibraltar. But there was no trace of a gloat in his comment, only a kind of sadness.
Spaniards endured over three decades of isolation from the rest of Europe during the years Francisco Franco held sway. They know how that can stifle a country economically and socially.
The questions above are valid today because next month Britain must again choose the path to its future. On December 10, at Maastricht, a small and ancient town on Holland's Meuse River, Britain's Prime Minister John Major will be presented with two treaties crafted to move the 12 members of the European Community closer together economically and politically.
Mr. Major must accept them or reject them.
On every side, as the date approaches, even the stiffest lips are quivering. Here and there they are snarling in determined resistance. Almost nowhere are they confidently smiling. Maastricht might be Britain's greatest test since the end of World War II.
Since the end of the Conservative Party conference October 11 in Blackpool, the British government has been in almost perpetual conflict with its European partners over a whole range of issues which will be contained in the Maastricht treaties. In almost every instance Britain is alone or in the minority.
Here are some of the issues: the speed of monetary union and acceptance of a single currency; a proposal to allow all community members a say in the foreign policy decisions of member states (on Northern Ireland, say); immigration law (who gets into Britain; who can be kept out); employment practices and social policy (length of the work week, protection of women against sexual harassment in the workplace); defense (NATO vs. a new specifically European force, as urged by France and Germany); the enhanced authority of the European Parliament, and the environment (does Brussels or London set environmental standards for Britain?).
Every one of these implies a transfer of authority from the member states to the center. There has not been such a concentration of power in Europe since the Treaty of Rome launched the EC in 1957. It is understandable why there would be some hesitation.
* For Margaret Thatcher it was all too much. It still is. She is the
leading opponent in Britain to the Maastricht treaties. She remains very much a presence in British politics despite her removal from the premiership last November by a Tory party worried that her policy toward Europe was coming to resemble that of Queen Boadicea, who in the first century AD resisted the Roman penetration of Britain with fire and sword.
The word that sets Mrs. Thatcher alight, and others of like mind, is "federal." The idea of Britain being a part of a federal Europe is as distasteful to her as eating snails.
And in truth, were all these proposals listed above to be carried out, Europe would be a large super-state, or at least something close to it.
John Major came into office last year with the honey of conciliation on his tongue and a promise to take Britain to the center of Europe. Everybody on the continent breathed easier when Mrs. Thatcher left office. For though many European leaders shared some of her reservations over what lay ahead, and were even pleased that her criticisms constantly made the community re-examine its purposes, most were signed on.
It is a momentous prospect facing Mr. Major. Should he veto the treaty, or spoil the negotiations before they are completed, Britain will have thrown Europe into a turmoil. But it is likely it would recover and regroup, then continue on its way without its most reluctant member.
Britain would then be again totally sovereign, its currency its own (and probably worth a lot less), with the power of its parliament at Westminster intact. It would be, by its own choice, outside the world's largest trading bloc which, with the inclusion of the EFTA countries (Austria, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Finland), will spread from the Arctic to the Mediterranean, encompass 380 million consumers, and eventually account for more than 40 percent of world trade.
"Where would she go?" asks the Spaniard.
Until recently in Britain that question had always been the stopper, the interrogative that helped bring the real world into focus.
So what has happened to blur the clarity of vision?
Politics, it has been suggested. Politics accounts for the sometimes icy, sometimes heated anti-Europe rhetoric dripping from the mouths of Tory cabinet ministers, including Mr. Major himself. It is an internal row within the party, for Labor is all pro-Europe these days.
Mr. Major, the experts say, is trying to neutralize the impact of Mrs. Thatcher and her gang by laying out a hard line against Europe. This is Mr. Major's endgame in the negotiations leading to Maastricht. When he comes to it, knowing the realities, he will sign. The alternative, isolation, is unacceptable.
Sir Michael Butler, formerly Britain's permanent representative to the European Commission, believes John Major is still committed to Europe, but he allowed that Mrs. Thatcher posed a problem. But should she "spontaneously combust," as he put it, it will do no lasting harm if only because Euro-rejectionist sentiment is not so prevalent as the vehemence of the rejectionist protest suggests. At least that's what he and the pundits say. But could it be possible that the anti-Europe root is planted deeper than they think?
* Ian Gregory is a minister of the Congregational Church in Newcastle under Lyme. From his flock he hears many things. On Europe, he says, "In this community, most people are indifferent to it. They don't think about it. But those who do are afraid we are not going to be able to match the capability of the others.
"Maybe it's because we are an island race. We are afraid we are about to be overwhelmed by this vast continent. Maybe we are afraid we can't compete." There is reason for doubt. Britain is not the most successful of the EC countries. It has more unemployed than any of its partners. Its manual workers are paid less than those of five other member states. The country's educational standards are at the bottom of the group. Even in the area of social welfare, Britain spends more per head than only the four poorest countries: Portugal, Greece, Spain and Ireland. The latter two are fast catching up.
Mr. Gregory is speaking of resistance and uncertainty at the grass roots. Perhaps Mr. Major is attuned to these sentiments. Though most polls continue to indicate a general, if not overwhelming, support for Europe, Britons are not necessarily prepared to surrender the kind of sovereignty to the community the Maastricht treaties might demand. That, at least, is what a Gallup Poll showed in September.
As Mr. Gregory says, most people don't think much about Europe, or appreciate that their citizenship extends beyond these shores. But this attitude is not the product of defiant individualism so much as uncertainty. The uncertainty that keeps raising the question that seems never to be satisfactorily answered. What does Britain want?