THE BLOG
06/09/2015 07:13 BST | Updated 05/09/2016 06:59 BST

We Can No More Turn Our Back on Europe Than We Can on the Refugees From Syria

The people of the United Kingdom have a very significant decision to make by the end of 2017. Deciding on whether our future is inside or outside the European Union will be the most important choice we have made as a nation in the last 40 years about our place in the world. And that's why the EU Referendum must be conducted in a way that is fair and seen to be fair.

The Government has tried to design the rules governing the Referendum in a way that would allow ministers to use the machinery of Government to make their case in the last 28 days of the campaign. There has been concern about this, and that's why Labour has proposed a different approach that would uphold the rules to ensure fairness.

The current version of the EU Referendum Bill makes the mistake of seeking completely to remove the so-called purdah provisions that Parliament put in place in 2000 precisely to cover the conduct of referendums.

The Government has argued that there is a case for changes to these provisions so that normal EU business can be conducted during the campaign period. We accept that argument, but the blanket removal of the purdah rules is certainly not the way to go about this. So we have said that if ministers have specific proposals for any change to the current rules they should make their case and let MPs vote on them.

This is why Labour has tabled an amendment to reinstate the purdah rules governing the use of Government resources during the campaign, while allowing ministers to propose certain limited exemptions to be voted on by Parliament. In the last few days ministers have finally moved in our direction but they still need to get the detail right. For all of us who believe that it is strongly in our national interest to remain part of the EU, it is essential that the campaign is seen to take place on a level playing field. Apart from being about fairness, it will also make it harder for those who want to leave the EU to complain about the process when actually they are afraid that they will lose the argument.

And looking to that campaign, we are confident in our arguments for staying in. As our world becomes increasingly interdependent, Britain's interests will best be served by continuing co-operation with, rather than separation from, other EU nations. Of course we need the EU to reform, but Britain's membership helps us make the best of our own prospects. And it is also the best hope we have of dealing with practical and moral challenges like the current refugee crisis. David Cameron made a huge mistake in resisting taking in more Syrian refugees until he was forced by public outcry to change his mind. He should have remembered the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The only way we can can effectively respond is by co-operation between nations, including within Europe and those who want Britain to leave the EU have proved incapable so far of explaining what 'out' looks like. Is it turning the clock back to the late 1950s? Is it being like Norway, which pays into the EU and has to accept free movement and all the rules without having any say? Or is it a renegotiated trade deal which no-one can describe with any certainty? The truth, of course, is that nobody can say, and the answers you get are either confused or totally unrealistic or both.

It is precisely at testing times like these that working together becomes most important. We can no more turn our back on Europe than we can on the refugees from Syria who are in desperate need of Europe's help.

Hilary Benn is shadow foreign secretary and the Labour MP for Leeds Central