If a Martian from deep space crash landed in the UK and stumbled across some of the debates had about Britain's membership of the EU, he might be forgiven for believing the union was run by a bunch of hapless idiots, hell bent on waste, with a perverse desire to make life as difficult as possible for all its members. The Martian might also deduce from some of the anti-immigration rhetoric that the entire populous of these other member states were, at that very moment, attempting to fight their way off ferries in Britain's ports, with the chief ambition of rolling up at the nearest job centre, a string of offspring in tow, palm outstretched for dole money.
The Martian would of course be wrong. Let us leave Sci-Fi fantasy for the moment and return to the facts. Research by the University College of London suggests that over the last decade, European immigrants to the UK have paid more in than they have taken out - to the tune of a net £20billion. If we stay with the subject of economics, membership of the world's largest single market has paid dividends: the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills has estimated that increased trade in Europe since the early 1980s may be responsible for around 6% higher income per capita in the UK.
Money talks, but the value of the union goes far beyond that. One of the biggest, looming crises facing the world is climate change. The climate cannot be fixed by one country in isolation, it takes the collective power of many to set up programmes and targets that make a difference. The EU is doing this: by 2030, the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme will have cut emissions in participating sectors by 43%.
Looking beyond the environment, EU laws have given citizens, businesses and authorities many other positive rights and obligations: the European Arrest Warrant has given member states valuable powers in bringing criminals to justice; it is thanks to EU membership that we as citizens have the freedom to travel, live, work, study and retire anywhere across the EU - and what's more, not pay expensive roaming charges when we decide to call our friends and family living back in the UK.
Of course we should never get too rose tinted, and it would be an equal fantasy for the Martian to leave earth thinking the EU is the perfect political paradigm. In many ways, right now, the way the union works isn't working. Issues around damage to national sovereignty manifested through loss of control over legislation, questions over the accountability of EU institutions as well as its perceived bureaucracy and costly red tape are important ones and it is right that we proactively seek to address them - in the words of William Hague, "Britain should be in Europe, not run by it." The practical impact of membership, for example on numbers coming to the UK, also cannot be ignored. Whilst migrants can and do bring valuable skills and expertise to the UK market (not to mention hefty tax receipts) the pressure this places on essential infrastructure like housing, hospitals and schools needs to be thought about and appropriately planned for.
Our relationship with the EU, and what we need to do to improve it, is an important and valid topic for discussion. But let's make sure it is a critical, rational conversation, not characterised by the scaremongering extremes that too often feature. Let us give sufficient space to understand what good has come from our membership, as well as where it has fallen short. Often it is all too easy to criticise than praise, to stray from facts into the fantastical. Let's make sure we give the Martian an honest debate.