A man of integrity, vision and humanity has tragically left us while serving at the heart of Europe. He was struggling with severe pneumonia, but he neither complained nor gave up hope of recovery. At a State funeral in Rome and at a memorial ceremony in Strasbourg, the heads of national and European institutions together with friends, colleagues and citizens lined up for a last farewell to a genuine man of the people.
Much has been said and written about David Sassoli, as a shockwave of sorrow swept across Europe following his sudden leaving in January. “Europe lost a leader, democracy lost a champion, and we all lost a friend” said his successor, Roberta Metsola, embodying a widespread feeling. Among the many paying tribute, no doubt the most significant words came from his children, Livia and Giulio, who recalled their father for his dignity, passion and love.
“Once he became President, he brought together the Parliament’s political groups and looked constructively for compromises to move the European agenda forward”
David was an Italian journalist, TV anchor and a moderate centre-left politician, with natural human and social gifts. First elected in 2009, he served in the Italian Partito Democratico, was delegation leader in the European Parliament and in 2014 he became a Parliament vice-President. In 2019, he ascended to the highest seat at the home of European democracy as President of the Parliament. However, he remained a simple man and a policymaker devoted to service. That simple man became a statesman.
“My father fought in the war” he used to say to illustrate his strong belief that Europe is about peace. A passionate protagonist for the process of renewal of Europe, he genuinely stood up for a strong, united and free Europe, in the spirit of the EU’s founding fathers. “Walls between people must be torn down, not built,” he once famously said.
He presided over the period of COVID-19 crisis and ensured that European parliamentary democracy continued to function, including by introducing remote voting for parliamentarians. He strongly defended the rule of law, not least when challenged by both Hungary and Poland; in particular he championed the supremacy of EU law over national law, when the Polish Constitutional court ruled to the contrary.
David believed that dialogue, solidarity and respect must be at the heart of all we do, that diversity is strength, and that migration has enriched Europe. His legacy will remain strong. For many of us, he represented the ‘good’ in politics. What does that mean? David Sassoli was a man of firm convictions, a value-driven politician, committed to the principles of Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty: fundamental rights and freedoms, the rule of law, equality, empowering women, protecting children and promoting LGBTI rights.
One of his last actions was to preside over the awarding of the Sakharov price for freedom of thought to imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, a freedom that he had fought for since the early days. He was well-known for having consistently and relentlessly championed a bold and ambitious EU agenda to innovate, protect and illuminate through its democratic integration model. He also led the European Parliament by valuing its role as the direct representation of the will of millions of Europeans, increasing people participation.
He sincerely wanted to give people a sense of European belonging, of European citizenship. He worked ceaselessly for the European institutions to be more open and transparent and accessible to all. It is thus no surprise that he championed the “Conference on the Future of Europe”, promoting bottom-up debates across the Union. At the Conference grand opening in plenary on Europe day, on 9 May 2021, he called on European leaders to have the courage to build a Europe that would offer more effective solutions for citizens and to overcome taboos on the necessary reforms.
Proud to be Italian, he worked for all Europeans. He was also proud of his political belonging; once he became President, he brought together the Parliament’s political groups and looked constructively for compromises to move the European agenda forward. Although we belong to different political families and did not agree on everything, our relationship grew from mutual respect to friendship over the years that we served together in the European Parliament. He supported my battles for children rights, women’s empowerment and even for a single seat for the Parliament.
“He remained a simple man and a policy maker devoted to service. That simple man became a statesman”
In the winter of 2015, at the peak of the Syrian war and the siege of Aleppo, together with UNICEF I initiated a campaign in Parliament to advocate for the children of Syria. I recall that David was one of the first to reach out to me with genuine support. He joined our pictures for social media and helped mobilizing the S&D group, making the campaign truly cross political boundaries. During the last Strasbourg session of the year, the plenary stood up from left to right showing the poster “Stop the violence on the children of Syria” in English, Arabic and Russian. Moving and meaningful!
As messages of condolences from fellow policymakers stream in, the new head office of the European Parliament in Rome, as well as the Negotiations Room of the European Treaties in the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a study centre in Ventotene Island have been dedicated to him.
For many of us who knew him, he remains David, with his enlightening smile. Ciao David, Presidente addio. You will be sorely missed and vividly remembered for your strong ideas and kind ways, your iron fist in a velvet glove. I hope your path of good politics will become a model for the younger generation and all policymakers. Your legacy - that kindness is not a weakness, that politicians are servicemen and servicewomen and that Europe is worth fighting for - is cast in stone.
As we say in Italy: Che la terra “ti sia lieve”. Be the earth soft on you.