He declared a climate emergency, pushed the Green Deal, and backed the multibillion-dollar COVID Recovery Fund to pull the EU out of the crisis. But David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, will not live to see the long-term results of his work.
On Tuesday morning, Sassoli died in Aviano, northern Italy – a week before the end of his two-and-a-half-year term. The 65-year-old had been hospitalized at Christmas; he died of an immune system disorder, according to official reports.
Sassoli, who belonged to the Partito Democratico, had led the Parliament since 2019. His term would have ended at the end of this month because the Social Democrats and the conservative EPP family of parties share the five-year legislative term in the presidency. Already in fall, Sassoli had fallen ill with severe pneumonia.
News of the death of the popular but little-known politician outside Italy has caused consternation far beyond Brussels. “Sassoli was a symbol of balance, humanity, and generosity,” Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said in Rome.
“Today is a sad day for Europe,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The EU is losing a “passionate European, a convinced democrat, and a good person,” the CDU politician said. Sassoli’s smile will be missed.
His choice was a surprise
However, relations between the two EU leaders have been rather frosty of late. Because von der Leyen is not taking enough action against violations of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, the Parliament has initiated an action for failure to act before the European Court of Justice – a first.
Even the beginning of the cooperation, which was marked by the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, was not easy. Sassoli, who won a third mandate in the 2019 European elections, saw himself as an adversary of the Commission president, who had been appointed by the Council. “I was not on the list of EU leaders, I am not a product of the Council,” Sassoli said in an interview with “Politico”. Unlike von der Leyen, he said, he emerged from a democratic process. However, his election in 2019 was a surprise even for insiders.
Sergei Stanishev, President of the Party of European Socialists (PES), was considered the favorite. Hardly anyone had Sassoli on their radar. But the political science graduate, who later worked as a journalist and anchorman on Italian television, prevailed.
As a committed Catholic, he was also electable to conservatives. His authoritative style made him an ideal compromise candidate. Sassoli was also appreciated for his rhetorical talent. His inaugural speech was a flaming appeal against nationalism.
Unlike his German predecessor Martin Schulz (SPD), however, Sassoli was hardly able to set his own accents. This was due to the superiority of the Council, which more than ever determines EU business, – but also to the COVID pandemic, which massively hinders the work of the European Parliament.
In recent months, Sassoli has increasingly lost control of Parliament. He toyed with the idea of running for a second term to make up for lost time, but his plans were thwarted, not least by his own comrades. The Social Democrats got involved in the usual dealings with the EPP in Parliament and put together a new personnel package for the second half of the legislative term, which begins in February.
Accordingly, the arch-conservative EPP politician Roberta Metsola from Malta is to take over the leadership of the European Parliament. She already took up her new post on Tuesday in an executive capacity. In turn, the conservative German Secretary-General Klaus Welle (CDU) could step down.
The final details of the personnel package are to be finalized this week. Metsola’s official election is then scheduled for next week’s plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Before that, there is to be a memorial ceremony for Sassoli on Monday. Eric Bonse