Our British cousins watch with amusement and disdain as Americans argue over gun control, climate change, the so-called fiscal cliff and other divisive issues, but now they have their own political drama: whether — and how — the United Kingdom should alter its relationship with the European Union.
Prime Minister David Cameron has made it clear he wants to sharply reduce Britain's involvement in the EU, and his political foes have jumped all over him, just as Republicans and Democrats have been at each other's collective throats on this side of the Atlantic.
On Wednesday, Cameron announced that within five years there will be a referendum on membership in the EU, assuming, of course, he's still prime minister at that point. His announcement raised concerns not only in Europe but also in Washington, where President Obama has expressed fears that Cameron's proposal might ultimately harm American interests.
"It is time for the British people to have their say," Cameron declared. "It is time to settle this European question in British politics."
European leaders immediately accused Cameron of trying to "cherry-pick" the economic benefits of being a EU member while refusing to accept the broader aspects of the union. French and German politicians accused Cameron of trying to enable Britain to have "Europe à la carte."
Cameron offered an impassioned defense of Britain's continued membership in what he called a more streamlined and competitive European Union, one that would be built around its core single market that drives the union's internal trade.
"I know there will be those who say the vision I have outlined will be impossible to achieve," he conceded. "That there is no way our partners will cooperate. That the British people have set themselves on a path to inevitable exit. And that if we aren't comfortable being in the EU after 40 years, we never will be."
Actually, the British participation in the EU — it's a member but doesn't use the currency — has always been somewhat uncomfortable. It may be because the English Channel separates the United Kingdom from the continent, creating a psychological barrier that's difficult to ignore. Or perhaps the British people remain wary of a former enemy, Germany. But mostly it appears to be because there is bitter resentment over what is seen as an excess of sometimes onerous regulations adopted by the EU and imposed on the resentful UK.
Cameron heads the Conservative Party, although he needed the support of the Liberal Party to become prime minister, and he is being pushed further to the right by the growing popularity of UK Independence Party, which Britons usually call UKip. It now holds 12 of the 73 UK seats in the European Parliament.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, a hugely unpopular figure in Britain because of his persistent support of President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq, came out strongly against Cameron's proposal on Wednesday.
"You are creating a situation of huge uncertainty," Blair commented. "Why would you do that? There is no necessity to do it. We don't yet know exactly what we are going to ask Europe to do. We don't know what we can get out of it. We don't know what the rest of Europe is going to do."
Cameron's speech, he complained, raises the prospect of Britain exiting the EU, and that, he said "would of course be a disaster for the country." But the British people may not agree with Blair. There have long been reports of widespread dissatisfaction and even anger over the imposition of unpopular rules and regulations that were conceived in Brussels (the EU capital) rather than at home, where politicians have to answer to their constituents.
Americans can relate to that. None of us would want the United Nations, for example, to dictate that certain aspects of our lives had to change to conform to a new international standard. This country has resisted using metric measurements and using Celsius rather than Fahrenheit to express temperatures.
The White House will be watching the Britain-EU controversy closely, and that should mollify those across the sea who expressed disappointment that Obama never even mentioned Europe during his second inauguration address. Cameron's proposal, which from here seems dangerously risky if understandable, certainly has his attention now.