BRUSSELS – David Sassoli, an Italian journalist turned politician who served as President of the European Parliament and spent his last years raising the profile of the institution and seeking to increase its powers during the difficult years of Brexit and the pandemic, died early Tuesday in Italy, his spokesperson said. He was 65 years old.
Mr Sassoli’s office said on Twitter that he had died in the Italian town of Aviano.
No specific cause of death was immediately available. He had been in poor health for months, hospitalized with severe pneumonia at a Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg, France in September, and admitted to an Italian hospital on December 26 because his immune system was not functioning normally, said his spokesperson. Roberto Cuillo said on Monday on social networks.
Mr Sassoli had a decades-long career in print and broadcast media in his native Italy, covering milestones such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, before trying his hand at politics in 2009.
He was elected MEP with the center-left Democratic Party, and re-elected twice, in 2014 and 2019, before being elected president of the body in the summer of 2019. In 2013, he led a campaign unsuccessful to become mayor of Rome.
Mr Sassoli led the 705-seat Parliament, which brings together MPs from the 27 EU member states, through a difficult time. He was its first president after Brexit, a historic development that has emboldened critics of the European Union and further fragmented its policy.
During his two-and-a-half-year tenure, he led the European Parliament through negotiations on landmark climate legislation and a $ 2.2 trillion economic fund aimed at helping the bloc recover from the impact of climate change. coronavirus. When the pandemic struck, Parliament and Mr Sassoli were fighting for more power and influence in the power structure of the EU. Unlike national legislatures, the European Parliament cannot propose laws. Mr Sassoli argued that allowing him to do so would make the bloc “more democratic, stronger and more innovative”.
The European Parliament approves or rejects legislation, establishes budgets and supervises various institutions within the European Union. Its members serve five-year terms; the next elections will take place in 2024. Parliament also plays a crucial role in the selection of the President of the European Commission, whose members are appointed by national governments.
The pandemic has disrupted parliamentary work in person, putting the institution at a disadvantage and reinforcing a roundabout way of doing business in the European Union, a disparate group of nations of varying wealth who often make important decisions behind closed doors through a handful eminent leaders.
The Parliament is seen as the least powerful of the three main EU institutions – the other two being the European Commission, which is the executive of the bloc, and the European Council, which brings together national political leaders. Mr Sassoli was praised for fighting to keep Parliament relevant and for rapidly advancing his online activities.
“I think one of the big projects that was under his shield was the digitization of our work during Covid,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, German MP with the Greens. “It was a difficult transition, and he guided us through it,” he said, adding that Mr. Sassoli “was a person of calm procedure and stewardship, despite his clear preferences and political orientation. Basically what you need to keep that whole big house together.
Mr Sassoli showed a particularly disjointed side of his leadership when he headed the European Parliament’s legal service in October sue the European Commission for not using its own rules to cut funding to member states, especially Poland and Hungary, which were backtracking rule of law standards, such as an independent judiciary.
“EU member states that violate the rule of law should not receive EU funds,” he said in a letter to Parliament’s legal service at the time. “The European Union is a community founded on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. If these are threatened in a Member State, the EU must act to protect them, ”he added.
His decision to fight on the issue reflected what he said was a strong belief in what the European Union stood for, especially as many European leaders turned a blind eye to rule of law violations by Hungary and Poland. It was also an initiative to increase the importance and role of Parliament.
“Its parliament was bolder and more courageous than previous parliaments,” said Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet professor of European Union law at HEC Paris.
“David was not a traditional politician and that made a huge difference as he felt more free to speak out,” he said, adding that “with regard to the rule of law, David Sassoli was the only truth-telling European leader in power.
Despite the clash, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, praised Mr Sassoli on Tuesday.
“In more than a decade of service in the European Parliament, he has consistently stood up for our union and its values. But he also believed that Europe should strive to do more, ”von der Leyen said in a statement. “He wanted Europe to be more united, closer to its citizens, more faithful to our values. This is his heritage.
The election of the new president is due to take place next week in Strasbourg.
David Maria Sassoli was born in Florence, Italy on May 30, 1956, according to his website and one short biography published online by his political group in Parliament. He was married to Alessandra Vittorini and had two children, Livia and Giulio, who are now adults.
He was born into a Catholic family and his father, Domenico, was a journalist and public intellectual. Mr. Sassoli was a scout and was interested in public life from his youth, getting involved in the “White Rose”, a Catholic political association.
In Italy, a wave of mourning erupted on Tuesday as news of his death spread.
Mr Sassoli will rest at Rome’s town hall on Tuesday. His funeral will take place in Rome on Friday.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi expressed his “dismay” at the news of the death of Mr. Sassoli. “A man of institutions, a fervent European, a passionate journalist, Sassoli was a symbol of balance, kindness and generosity,” said Mr. Draghi.
An Italian state television presenter became too emotional to continue broadcasting the reactions to her death and had to be replaced.
In a telegram addressed to Mr. Sassoli’s wife, Pope Francis noted his “sincere participation in the deep sorrow that has afflicted Italy and the European Union”, said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Vatican. He added that Pope Francis remembers Mr. Sassoli as a “believer animated by hope and charity, a competent journalist and esteemed man of institutions who calmly and respectfully acted for the common good in his public roles “.
Hundreds of MEPs and employees of the European Parliament gathered in front of the building in Brussels on Tuesday afternoon to commemorate Mr Sassoli and observed a minute of silence.
Some were in tears and others were kissing.
“Her tireless work to care for the most vulnerable, in Europe and abroad, will be missed. And of course his support for the European project itself, which he has always considered more of a human project than an economic one, ”said Francesco Bortoletto, a 25-year-old parliamentary intern, who went to pay tribute to Mr. Sassoli with three friends. “We all really loved him.”
Elisabetta povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani contributed to reports from Rome, and Mike ives from Seoul.