Denis MacShane: Air travel chaos gives the EU a chance to show what it is made of

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Europe is shut down. The Gods of the Far North have opened their mouths in anger. Ashes and wind have stopped flights from the Arctic Circle to the Alps. Millions of citizens from Britain, Germany, the Nordic nations, Poland and the Netherlands are stranded in southern Europe – unable to return home from Easter holidays. Their children cannot get to school. They are running out of money to pay for hotels, to buy food, or have mobile phone credit to stay in touch. Is this not a moment for the European Union to show that it exists to help its citizens?

We need a 2010 equivalent of the Berlin Airlift to bring help to Europe's citizens who cannot return home easily. The first priority is information. The EU representation offices must leave their comfortable capital city bureaux and go to where EU citizens need help. Local university students who speak the foreign languages of stranded citizens can travel to help monolingual people. Military and naval forces must be mobilised to arrive in remoter areas of the EU like the Canary Island where thousands of German, British, Dutch and Nordic holidaymakers are isolated.

The Common Agricultural Payments should be temporarily suspended to pay for food and shelter for people. Europe's farmers can give up two weeks of the CAP to show solidarity with their fellow citizens who will thank them for their generosity.

If air flights continue to be suspended the EU should commandeer train and coach services to maintain links between the north and south of the continent. Flights from north and south America have to be diverted to Barcelona and Milan with special trains to take people, goods and letters to the north. Autoroutes should be cleared to allow special convoys to maintain contact. Eurostar has to be placed under EU supervision to allow at least five trains an hour day and night to connect Britain and Ireland with the European mainland.

Schools should be opened for stranded children to continue their vital school work ahead of the summer examinations. Mobile phone companies should offer free phones with credit to the stranded travellers and governments should provide internet centres to allow contacts to be sustained.

I have an interest to declare as a candidate in the election due to be held on 6 May. There are Labour voters from my constituency stranded and unable to return home. I need them back. And as one of the few candidates who is not afraid to say that the EU is one of the best political achievements of my lifetime I want to see Europe rising to this crisis and proving its worth and value to its citizens.

Denis MacShane is a former Europe minister.