Systems for the early detection of floods over continental and global domains have a key role in providing a quick overview of areas at risk, raise the awareness and prompt higher detail analyses as the events approach. However, the reliability of these systems is prone to spatial inhomogeneity, depending on the quality of the underlying input data and local calibration. This work proposes a simple approach for flood early warning based on ensemble numerical predictions of surface runoff provided by weather forecasting centers. The system is based on a novel indicator, referred to as an extreme runoff index (ERI), which is calculated from the input data through a statistical analysis. It is designed for use in large or poorly gauged domains, as no local knowledge or in situ observations are needed for its setup. Daily runs over 32 months are evaluated against calibrated hydrological simulations for all of Europe. Results show skillful flood early warning capabilities up to a 10-day lead time. A dedicated analysis is performed to investigate the optimal timing of forecasts to maximize the detection of extreme events. A case study for the central European floods of June 2013 is presented and forecasts are compared to the output of a hydro-meteorological ensemble model.