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David-Maria Sassoli, an Italian reporter and former television news anchor who parlayed his journalism career into a second act as a socialist politician and an almost-accidental term as European Parliament president, died Tuesday at a hospital in Aviano, Italy. He was 65.
Sassoli died just days before the end of his term as president of the 705-member Parliament, which is due to elect his successor in Strasbourg next week. He had been battling serious illness, including pneumonia, since September and had been hospitalized multiple times, most recently on December 26.
His death, shortly after 1:15 a.m., was announced by his spokesman, Roberto Cuillo.
Sassoli had spent much of his two-and-a-half-year term steering the Parliament through the extraordinary difficulty of the coronavirus pandemic, which effectively shuttered its buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg for some time, and forced him and the Parliament administration to devise unprecedented remote-working methods.
He also helped steer a tough negotiation over the EU’s long-term budget, paving the way for the establishment of a historic €1.8 trillion budget-and-recovery package, which includes both traditional funding and unprecedented joint debt. On November 10, 2020, the Parliament reached a deal with the Council of the EU ensuring the adoption of the 2021-2027 budget. Under the agreement, Parliament won extra funding in areas such as the Horizon Europe research program and the popular Erasmus student exchange program.
Sassoli, by his own account, was a surprise, last-minute choice for the Parliament presidency in July 2019 after the EU’s 27 heads of state and government chose a slate for top jobs following that year’s European election, which included conservative Ursula von der Leyen as Commission president, liberal Charles Michel as Council president, and envisioned a social democrat leading the directly-elected legislature.
“It happened at the very last minute,” Sassoli told POLITICO in an interview at the time from the outdoor terrace of his office on the ninth floor of the Parliament building. “I wasn’t on the EU leaders’ list, I am not a product of the Council. I am the product of a conclusion pro-European groups of the Parliament have reached.”
Sassoli noted that the 27 leaders had initially floated the idea of the post going to Sergei Stanishev, a Bulgarian and president of the Party of European Socialists, which would have provided the additional geographic diversity of an Eastern European on the slate.
Stanishev turned down the post, however, and the Parliament — sticking with the broader leadership deal — elected Sassoli to succeed another Italian, conservative Antonio Tajani.
As Parliament president, Sassoli was a largely conciliatory voice, working to help advance the agenda of von der Leyen, the Commission’s first woman president, including the European Green Deal, an ambitious package of measures to combat climate change.
As a result of the 2019 election — in which both of the EU’s dominant parties, the center-right conservatives and the center-left socialists, had lost seats — Sassoli faced the added challenge of navigating a three-party majority coalition.
In a message on Twitter, von der Leyen wrote: “I am deeply saddened by the terrible loss of a great European & proud Italian. David Sassoli was a compassionate journalist, an outstanding President of the European Parliament and, first & foremost, a dear friend. My thoughts are with his family.”
European Council President Charles Michel described Sassoli as a “sincere and passionate European,” adding: “We already miss his human warmth, his generosity, his friendliness and his smile.”
From journalist to politician
Sassoli was born in Florence, on May 30, 1956, and, according to his official biography, went to work at a young age as a journalist with small newspapers before moving to Rome to join the staff of Il Giorno, a Milan-headquartered daily newspaper.
In 1992, he shifted to television, beginning as a correspondent for TG3 and soon became a fixture on news programs on Rai Uno and Rai Due. He became a special correspondent at TG1 in 1999, and spent a decade managing the main editions of the channel’s news programs. He was named deputy director of TG1 in 2007.
Sassoli was drawn into politics by the former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, who was the first leader of Italy’s center-left Democratic Party, which was founded in 2007, and which Sassoli joined. Sassoli was elected for the first time to the European Parliament in 2009, and was the head of the party’s delegation from 2009 to 2014.
In 2012, he made a failed bid for mayor of Rome as the Democratic Party candidate, but he was re-elected to the European Parliament in 2014 and also elected as a Parliament vice president. He focused on transport issues and was a rapporteur for a package of railway reforms.
Sassoli won a third term in 2019, positioning him as a leading socialist vice president at the perfect moment when the European Council’s quest for party balance in the EU’s new leadership slate called for a center-left Parliament president.
At the time, prior to the U.K. leaving the EU, the Parliament had 751 members and Sassoli was elected in the second round of balloting with 345 votes.
Sassoli, who had barely a morning on the day of the vote to convince his fellow MEPs to support his candidacy, defeated Jan Zahradil, of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group, and Ska Keller of the Greens, who had each campaigned for months as their groups’ Spitzenkandidaten or “lead candidates” to become Commission presidents.
The European Council had bypassed the Spitzenkandidat process by refusing to nominate German conservative MEP Manfred Weber for Commission president, even though his political family, the European People’s Party (EPP), had won the most seats in Parliament. The heads opted instead for von der Leyen, a former German defense minister and protégé of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel, also from the EPP.
At the time of his election, Sassoli acknowledged that the EU’s leadership selection process needed revision and suggested the possibility of pursuing treaty reform. But while the EU has mounted a new “Conference on the Future of Europe” largely at the behest of French President Emmanuel Macron, there has been no major push toward treaty revisions, nor any focus on revamping the process of selecting the chiefs of the EU institutions.
In the interview with POLITICO shortly after his election, Sassoli said his victory showed that the Parliament “wanted to offer its own alternative and not be subjected to the Council’s.” But he also conceded that the process was flawed.
“The problem was that we are in a political dynamic not an institutional one, and the Council chose a different path,” he said.
The EU, Sassoli said, needs a new “political pact” with other institutions to improve the Spitzenkandidat process, enhance the Parliament’s veto power and enact other reforms.
“We hope to be able to enter in a process of treaty revision but we can’t say it now, it will depend on the work that will be done,” he said, adding: “This legislature must be a political legislature, and it must be political in the sense that we need to give shape and content to the request of a new Europe.”
That work, if it proceeds, will now fall to Parliament’s current First Vice-President Roberta Metsola, a conservative from Malta who was already set to be elected as Sassoli’s successor next week.
“I am heartbroken. Europe has lost a leader, I have a lost a friend, democracy has lost a champion,” Metsola posted on Twitter after news of Sassoli’s death, adding that he had “dedicated his life to making the world a better, fairer place.”
Sassoli, who was already ill, had announced last month that he would not seek a second term.
Sassoli is survived by his wife, Alessandra Vittorini, an architect who has held several prominent posts and is now director of the School of Cultural Heritage and Activities Foundation, and their two children, Giulio and Livia.
Lili Bayer and Jules Darmanin contributed reporting.
This article has been updated.