EU Parliament President David Sassoli Dies at 65, Remembered as Champion for Democracy

European Parliament President David Sassoli has died due to immune system complications.

The Italian politician had been struggling with his health since September but continued his duties as EU Parliament President as much as possible. He is remembered by his colleagues for his commitment to seeking justice, whether it was for migrants crossing the Mediterranean or political prisoners in Russia.

"We can be that hope when we don't ignore those in need," Sassoli had said during his new year address. "When we don't build walls on our borders. When we fight all forms of injustice. Here's to us, here's to hope."

Sassoli helped preside over the European Union alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. Despite the coronavirus pandemic and internal conflicts, he was recognized as a compromiser who brought difficult debates to successful conclusions.

"Everyone loved his smile and his kindness, yet he knew how to fight for what he believed in," said von der Leyen in a statement.

Michel shared a similar sentiment, calling him a "sincere and passionate European. We already miss his human warmth, his generosity, his friendliness and his smile."

Sassoli is survived by his wife and two children. The European Commission will hold a minute of silence during their meeting on Wednesday, and flags are currently down at half-mast at the EU's headquarters in Brussels, Germany.

David Sassoli
European Parliament President David Sassoli looks on during a joint press conference at the Foreign Affairs ministry during to the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament, in Paris on December 9, 2021. Sassoli died on Tuesday after a battle with immune system complications. Photo by Bertrand Guay/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

"Our union has lost at the same time an Italian patriot, a great European and a tireless humanist," French President Emmanuel Macron said.

Over the past few months, he improved enough to preside over a European Parliament session in December to give the EU's main human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's daughter.

Pope Francis, who received Sassoli in an audience last year, sent an unusually heartfelt telegram of condolences to Sassoli's wife, paying tribute to him as an "animated believer of hope and charity ... who, in a peaceful and respectful way, worked for the common good with a generous commitment."

A lifelong fan of the Fiorentina football club, he emulated the refined style of the team where Gabriel Batistuta and Roberto Baggio thrived. But in the end, like the Florence club, he also never got to reach the very highest level. Being head of the European Parliament doesn't compare to being a prime minister or leading the European Commission or Council.

Even if he was often overshadowed by von der Leyen and Michel, Sassoli led an institution which has become ever more powerful over the years and has become instrumental in charting the course of the European Union in many sectors, be it the digital economy, climate or Brexit.

His pinnacle came on the European scene, but he was just as respected in his native Italy.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi sent condolences on behalf of the Italian government and paid tribute to Sassoli as "a man of institutions, a profound pro-European, a passionate journalist, Sassoli was a symbol of balance, humanity, generosity."

The head of Sassoli's Democratic Party and a longtime friend, Enrico Letta, praised Sassoli's European passion and vision and vowed to carry them forward, though "we know we're not up to it."

Sassoli was first elected to the European Parliament in 2009. He won another term in 2014 and served as its vice president. He started out as a newspaper journalist before entering broadcasting as a high-profile presenter in Italy. It was a stepping stone for his political career.

He had considered running for the second part of the five-year term which starts next week, but decided not to run for reelection when lawmakers choose their new president in Strasbourg, France.

Roberta Metsola, the Christian Democrat who was set to take over from Sassoli next week, said "I am heartbroken. Europe has lost a leader, I have a lost a friend, democracy has lost a champion." She said Sassoli "dedicated his life to making the world a better, fairer place."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

EU Half-Mast
EU flags fly at half-mast outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on January 11, 2022, as a tribute to European Parliament President David Sassoli, who has died at the age of 65. Sassoli died in the early hours of Tuesday in the hospital where he had been admitted on December 26 for what his spokesman had said was "a serious complication due to a dysfunction of the immune system." Photo by Patrick Hertzog/AFP via Getty Images