BRUSSELS — David Sassoli, an Italian journalist-turned-politician who was president of the European Parliament and dedicated his later years to raising the institution’s profile and seeking to increase its powers during the rocky years of Brexit and the pandemic, died early Tuesday in Italy, his spokesman said. He was 65.
Mr. Sassoli’s office said on Twitter that he had died in the Italian town of Aviano.
No specific cause of death was immediately available. He had been in poor health for months, hospitalized with severe pneumonia during a plenary session of the Parliament in Strasbourg, France, in September, and admitted to an Italian hospital on Dec. 26 because his immune system was not functioning normally, his spokesman, Roberto Cuillo, said on Monday on social media.
Mr. Sassoli had a decades-long career in print and broadcast journalism in his native Italy, covering era-defining events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, before trying his hand at politics in 2009.
He was elected as a member of the European Parliament with the center-left Democratic Party, and re-elected twice, in 2014 and 2019, before being voted in as president of the body in the summer of 2019. In 2013, he ran an unsuccessful campaign to become mayor of Rome.
Mr. Sassoli led the 705-seat Parliament, which brings together deputies from all 27 E.U. member states, through a difficult period. He was its first president after Brexit, a historic development that emboldened critics of the European Union and further fragmented its politics.
During his two-and-a-half year term, he steered the European Parliament through negotiations over landmark climate legislation and a $2.2 trillion economic fund aimed at helping the bloc recover from the impact of the coronavirus. When the pandemic hit, the Parliament and Mr. Sassoli were fighting for more power and influence in the E.U. power structure. Unlike national legislatures, the European Parliament cannot propose laws. Mr. Sassoli argued that allowing it to do so would make the bloc “more democratic, stronger and more innovative.”
The European Parliament approves or rejects legislation, establishes budgets and supervises a variety of institutions within the European Union. Its members serve five-year terms; the next election is in 2024. The Parliament also plays a crucial role in selecting the president of the European Commission, whose members are appointed by national governments.
The pandemic disrupted in-person parliamentary business, putting the institution at a disadvantage and reinforcing a back-channel way of doing business in the European Union, a disparate group of nations of varying wealth that often reaches important decisions behind closed doors through a handful of prominent leaders.
The Parliament is considered the least powerful of the three main E.U. institutions — the other two being the European Commission, which is the bloc’s executive, and the European Council, which brings together national political leaderships. Mr. Sassoli was praised for fighting to keep the Parliament relevant and for rapidly advancing its business online.
“I think one of the big projects that was under his shield was the digitalization of our work during Covid,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a German member of the Parliament with the Greens. “It was a tough transition, and he navigated us through that,” he said, adding that Mr. Sassoli “was a person of procedures and of a calm stewardship, despite his clear preferences and political orientation. Basically, what you need to keep this whole big house together.”
Mr. Sassoli showed a particularly scrappy side to his leadership when, in October, he led the European Parliament’s legal service to sue the European Commission for not using its own rules to cut funding to member states, particularly Poland and Hungary, that were backtracking on rule-of-law standards, such as an independent judiciary.
“E.U. member states that violate the rule of law should not receive E.U. funds,” he said in a letter to the Parliament’s legal service at the time. “The European Union is a community built on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. If these are under threat in a member state, the E.U. must act to protect them,” he added.
His decision to pick a fight over the issue reflected what he said was a strong belief in what the European Union stood for, particularly as many European leaders were turning a blind eye to rule-of-law violations by Hungary and Poland. It was also a move to increase the Parliament’s prominence and role.
“His parliament was bolder and braver than previous parliaments,” said Alberto Alemanno, the Jean Monnet professor of European Union law at HEC Paris.
“David wasn’t a traditional politician and that made a huge difference, because he felt freer to speak up,” he said, adding that “when it came to the rule of law, David Sassoli was the only European leader who was speaking truth to power.”
Despite that clash, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, was effusive in her praise of Mr. Sassoli on Tuesday.
“In over a decade of service in the European Parliament, he constantly defended our union and its values. But he also believed that Europe had to strive for more,” Ms. von der Leyen said in a statement. “He wanted Europe to be more united, closer to its people, more faithful to our values. That is his legacy.”
The election for the new president is scheduled to take place next week in Strasbourg.
David Maria Sassoli was born in Florence, Italy, on May 30, 1956, according to his website and a short biography published online by his political group in Parliament. He was married to Alessandra Vittorini and had two children, Livia and Giulio, who are now adults.
He was born into a Catholic family and his father, Domenico, was a journalist and public intellectual. Mr. Sassoli was a scout and showed an interest in public life from youth, becoming involved in the “White Rose,” a Catholic political association.
In Italy a groundswell of mourning rose Tuesday as news of his passing spread.
Mr. Sassoli will lie in state in Rome’s town hall on Tuesday. His funeral will be held on Friday in Rome.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy expressed “dismay” at the news of Mr. Sassoli’s death. “A man of the institutions, a deep European believer, a passionate journalist, Sassoli was a symbol of balance, kindness and generosity,” Mr. Draghi said.
An anchorwoman on Italian state television became too emotional to continue broadcasting reactions to his death, and had to be replaced.
In a telegram to Mr. Sassoli’s wife, Pope Francis noted his “heartfelt participation in the deep grief that has struck Italy and the European Union,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said. He added that Pope Francis remembered Mr. Sassoli as a “believer animated by hope and charity, competent journalist and esteemed man of the institutions who, in a quiet and respectful way, acted for the common good in his public roles.”
Hundreds of European Parliament members and employees gathered Tuesday afternoon outside the building in Brussels to commemorate Mr. Sassoli and hold a minute’s silence.
Some were in tears and others embracing.
“We’ll miss his tireless work to care about the most vulnerable, in Europe and abroad. And of course his support for the European project itself, which he always saw as a human project more than an economic one,” said Francesco Bortoletto, a 25-year-old Parliament trainee, who went to pay tribute to Mr. Sassoli with three friends. “We all really liked him.”
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome, Gaia Pianigiani from Siena, Italy, and Mike Ives from Seoul.