From the Economist, on three factors that sets the British apart from its continental cousins.
One, a history of trading (as opposed to French farming, for example), common law system, and early industrialization.
Historians describe the English (more than the British) as unusually individualist and market-minded since medieval times, working for wages and trading property. England has had a central system of common law for centuries. It industrialised early. It has not been occupied in a long while. All this matters.
Two, the fact that the British has other options – part geography, part history.
These are all reasons why the British are different. Why, though, is Britain unique? The Nordics are free-traders who joined late and believe their national standards to be higher than Europe’s. Lots of east Europeans look to America for their security. Germany and Austria have their own Brussels-bashing tabloids. Sweden and Denmark both declined to join the euro.
The difference is that, although many of the others dislike aspects of the EU, they feel they have no real alternative. On many fronts, the British think they do. If a common EU foreign policy fails, Britain is still on the UN Security Council. If the euro collapses, Britain has the pound. Should EU regulation get too burdensome, there is always the chance of opt-outs.
Three, Britain does not share in the collective defeatist sentiment from WWII (except for the imperial decline part) as those on the continent.
To de Gaulle’s generation, the EU was a solution to the “German problem”, above all. Yet the post-war cry of “never again” resounds less in Britain. But it matters greatly that, almost uniquely in Europe, the second world war is a positive memory in Britain—and that Britain has not been invaded for centuries.
But smugness and schadenfreude aside, few in even the most reactionary corner of the British press could deny that, like it or not, UK and the EU are stuck with each other for the foreseeable future.
Europe will survive only if it acts more like a maritime power, its eyes fixed on growth and the far horizon. And Britain is needed to defend the free movement of people, goods, services and capital in the internal market. Walking away from the EU would not make either the club or its rules go away. In short, Britain and Europe are stuck with each other.