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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.

''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.


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