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As they mourned the death of their President, David Sassoli, Members of the European Parliament fondly remembered a leader who made friends from all walks of life with charm and a human touch.
In a time of political polarization, the Italian Social Democrat was somewhat of a throwback – a gentleman seeking compromise.
Sassoli, who died on Tuesday at the age of 65, has also sought to defend his own country and language, speaking in public almost exclusively in Italian even as other mainland European politicians increasingly resort to l ‘English.
Friends and colleagues remembered Sassoli greeting everyone he met – senior officials, MEPs, parliamentary staff, housekeepers – with a “Come on stai?” (“How are you?”)
They also recalled the former journalist’s determination to keep Parliament going when faced with a challenge faced by any of his predecessors – a continent-wide lockdown imposed in the face of a deadly pandemic.
Some pointed to her strong Catholic roots and commitment to social justice, demonstrated by her decision to open parliament buildings to vulnerable women and to help the homeless during the pandemic, and the rights of refugees.
But above all, they spoke about Sassoli’s personal qualities. He may not have been a political heavyweight – Sassoli was, as he freely admitted, an almost accidental choice to be President of Parliament – but he left a deep impression on many MEPs.
“I will keep in mind the memory of someone who was the opposite of a political shark,” said Philippe Lamberts, co-leader of the Green group in Parliament.
“He was honest, deeply kind and concerned about the common good,” said the Belgian, who worked closely with Sassoli in the Conference of Presidents, the key decision-making body of Parliament’s leaders.
Ryszard Legutko, co-leader of the right The European Conservatives and Reformists group said they were “politically on the opposite side” of Sassoli on many issues, but paid tribute to a “charming and extremely polite man”.
“There was never any hostility on his part and at least Sassoli was trying to create a certain atmosphere of cooperation and understanding,” said Legutko, of the Polish Law and Justice party, which is often at odds with the institutions. of the EU.
Certain Members and officials of Parliament collected in silence in front of the main building of the Legislative Assembly in Brussels on Tuesday to mourn Sassoli. The flags of the EU on the Parliament buildings were lowered at half-mast.
Parliament announced that Sassoli would be honored on Monday at its next plenary session in Strasbourg. His death came shortly before he finished his two-and-a-half-year term as president of the institution.
Sassoli’s tenure was marked above all by the coronavirus. Even more than for other democratic institutions, the pandemic has posed enormous challenges for the European Parliament, as the legislature brings together legislators and staff from all national borders and relies heavily on services such as interpretation. multilingual.
At the start of the pandemic, Sassoli called on all MEPs to stop traveling and stay in Brussels. For a while, no political rally took place in Parliament. And the regular sessions of the organ in Strasbourg were interrupted.
But Sassoli sought to keep Parliament functioning.
“From March to May 2020, he was left alone in a small apartment in Brussels without seeing his family,” said a parliament official. “Another president could have gone to his country… He would come to the office every day.”
Sassoli was a strong supporter of the EU and was widely seen as sympathetic to the agenda of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen – a mix of center-right, center-left and liberal politics.
But he also showed his willingness to speak out against von der Leyen when his home country bore the brunt of the pandemic, and she spoke with contempt of proposals to create “corona bonds” to help fund economic recovery.
Sassoli and other prominent Italian politicians have publicly challenged von der Leyen, forcing her to back down at the weekend.
Despite the disagreement, officials said Sassoli and von der Leyen have developed a close and confident working relationship. In one video statement On Tuesday, a visibly upset von der Leyen described him as 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 believed in, ”said the German Christian Democrat.
Officials said Sassoli had the ability to keep his cool even when under attack. A diplomat recalled that he stood firm when then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel blasted Parliament’s call for a larger European budget and a stimulus fund.
“Merkel told him it was completely unrealistic… she lashed out at him and his expression didn’t change,” the diplomat said. “He laid down his conditions without hesitation.
Parliament did not get its wish list but did get some concessions from EU leaders.
Sassoli has also taken a personal stance on refugees, once again swimming against the tide as Europe takes an increasingly harsh line on migration.
“I think it is our duty above all to save lives,” he said in June after the opening of a conference on migration and asylum in Europe. “It is no longer acceptable to leave this responsibility to NGOs alone, which fulfill a substitute function in the Mediterranean.
In September, following the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, Sassoli said he was “very disappointed” at the reluctance of EU member countries to welcome Afghan asylum seekers.
On social policy, colleagues spoke of a politician committed to helping the most vulnerable in society. Brando Benifei, another Italian center-left MEP, said Sassoli gave him strong support as Parliament negotiated with EU governments on the European Social Fund Plus, a program to fight poverty and increase employment opportunities.
“We stood firm on two points that were close to David’s heart… He supported me and encouraged me to take a strong stand,” said Benifei.
He said Sassoli had “a real humanity, never taking himself too seriously but with a deep sense of duty”.
For his part, the spokesperson for Sassoli, Roberto Cuillo, summed up his boss’s approach in a few words: “David has made kindness and good manners essential ingredients of politics.