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As they mourned the death of their President, David Sassoli, MEPs fondly remembered a leader whose charm and human touch had won friends across the political spectrum.
In times of political polarization, the Italian social democrat was something of a step backwards – a gentlemanly seeker of compromise.
Sassoli, who died on Tuesday at the age of 65, also tried to speak up for his own country and language, speaking in public almost exclusively in Italian, while other continental European politicians increasingly resorted to English.
Friends and colleagues recalled that Sassoli greeted everyone he met – high-ranking officials, MPs, parliamentarians, cleaning ladies – with an informal “How are you?” (“How are you?”)
They also recalled the former journalist’s determination to keep Parliament running when faced with a challenge none of his predecessors had encountered – a continent-wide lockdown in the face of a deadly pandemic.
Some emphasized his strong Catholic roots and commitment to social justice demonstrated by his decision Opening Parliament buildings to vulnerable women and helping the homeless during the pandemic, and refugee rights.
Above all, however, they spoke of Sassoli’s personal qualities. While he wasn’t a political heavyweight – Sassoli was, as he freely admitted, an almost accidental election to Parliament’s presidency – he left a deep impression on many MPs.
“I will cherish the memory of someone who was the opposite of a political shark,” said Philippe Lamberts, co-leader of the Greens group in Parliament.
“He was honest, deeply kind and concerned for the common good,” he said the Belgian who worked closely with Sassoli in the Conference of Presidents, the main decision-making body of the heads of parliament.
Ryszard Legutko, co-leader of the right Group of European Conservatives and Reformists, said he was “politically on the opposite side” of Sassoli on many issues, but paid tribute to a “charming and extremely polite man”.
“There was never any animosity from him and at least Sassoli tried to create some atmosphere of cooperation and understanding,” said Legutko of Poland’s Law and Justice party, which often finds itself at odds with the EU institutions.
Some MPs and Parliament officials gathered mourn the death of Sassoli in silence in front of the main building of the legislature in Brussels on Tuesday. EU flags were on parliament buildings lowered at half mast.
Parliament announced that Sassoli will be honored at his next plenary session in Strasbourg on Monday. His death came shortly before the end of his two-and-a-half-year tenure as the institution’s president.
Sassoli’s tenure was primarily shaped by the corona virus. Even more so than other democratic institutions, the pandemic has posed major challenges for the European Parliament, as the legislature brings lawmakers and staff together across the many national borders and relies heavily on services such as multilingual interpretation.
In the early days of the pandemic, Sassoli instructed all MPs to stop traveling and stay in Brussels. For a time there were no political meetings in Parliament. And the regular meetings of the body in Strasbourg came to a standstill.
But Sassoli tried to keep Parliament going.
“From March to May 2020, he stayed alone in a small apartment in Brussels without seeing his family,” a parliament official said. “Another president could have gone to his country… He would have come to the office any day.”
Sassoli was a staunch supporter of the EU and was widely seen as supporting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s agenda – a mix of centre-right, centre-left and liberal politics.
But he also expressed a willingness to speak out against von der Leyen when his home country was bearing the brunt of the pandemic, and she spoke disparagingly of proposals to create “corona bonds” to fund the economic recovery.
Sassoli and other Italian leaders publicly opposed von der Leyen, forcing her to withdraw over the weekend.
Despite these disagreements, officials said Sassoli and von der Leyen have developed a close and trusting working relationship. In one video statement On Tuesday, a visibly upset von der Leyen called him a “dear friend”.
“David Sassoli was a man of deep faith and strong convictions. Everyone loved his smile and his kindness, but he knew how to fight for what he believes in,” said the German Christian Democrat.
Officials said Sassoli has the ability to keep his cool even under attack. One diplomat recalled standing firm when then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel blew up Parliament’s demands for a larger EU budget and recovery fund.
“Merkel told him it was completely unrealistic… she hit him and his expression didn’t change,” the diplomat said. “He made his terms without hesitation.”
Parliament has not received its wish list but has extorted some concessions from EU leaders.
Sassoli also took a personal stand on refugees, once again swimming against the political tide as Europe takes an increasingly tough stance on migration.
“I believe it is our duty first and foremost to save lives,” he said in June after opening a conference on migration and asylum in Europe. “It is no longer acceptable to leave this responsibility only to NGOs that perform a substitute function in the Mediterranean.”
In September, after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Sassoli declared himself “very disappointed” with the reluctance of EU member states to accept Afghan asylum seekers.
Regarding social policy, colleagues spoke of a politician who is committed to helping the weakest in society. Brando Benifei, a colleague of the Italian centre-left MP, said Sassoli gave him strong support when Parliament negotiated it with EU governments European Social Fund Plus, a program to fight poverty and improve job opportunities.
“We stood firmly on two issues that were important to David… He supported me and encouraged me to take firm positions,” said Benifei.
He said Sassoli had “real humanity, never taking himself too seriously but with a deep sense of duty”.
The speaker of Sassoli for his part Roberto Cuillo summed up his boss’s approach in a few words: “David made kindness and good manners essential parts of politics.”