The European Union’s decision to call its members together in two emergency summits aimed at strengthening defences against the mutating virus of protectionism is, in principle, a good idea – so long as it crystallises into a collective realisation of what is at stake and why.

Europe’s response to this emergency has been ragged, perhaps unsurprisingly given the global impersonality and seemingly fathomless depths of the crisis. But that is no excuse for beggar-thy-neighbour policies and a subsidies war – typified by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s outrageous call for French carmakers to “repatriate” their production from east European assembly plants to France.

The entire European enterprise is being put at risk as the Union’s leaders abandon the most elementary principles of solidarity and compete to play with fire.

Mr Sarkozy, who clearly has a tone problem, is not, alas, the sole culprit. The UK’s Gordon Brown, for example, arguably the EU leader with the most acute understanding of how global finance works, preaches international co-operation abroad while practising financial nationalism at home. This will not do.

Nor is it sufficient to dismiss this behaviour as par-for-the-course hypocrisy or an understandable response to extreme circumstances.

The success of the EU is a result of its hybrid personality: part inter-governmental and part federal. Its traditional glue has been economic integration and the single market.

That is what is most specifically being assailed in this slide into protectionism: the pooled sovereignty over trade and competition policy, the core competences of the Union.

This did not start with the credit crunch. It began 15 years ago with the decision of EU leaders to draw a line under the era of Jacques Delors – the high watermark of European ambition – and “repatriate” power from Brussels to national capitals. That process has now gone too far.

It has resulted in a weak European Commission. This particular executive, in its dying days, and with its president, Jose Manuel Barroso, seeking a new term, is not well placed to resist an assault by powerful member states on the collective patrimony of the EU.

There is merit in Thursday’s call – by Giuliano Amato, former prime minister of Italy, and Emma Bonino, former EU commissioner, writing in these pages– for the Commission to be placed in charge of EU taskforces to co-ordinate state aid to banks and carmakers. If Brussels fails to reassert authority in policing the single market, the EU risks being pulled apart. This Union needs a stronger Commission.

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