He was a well-known journalist in his native Italy before going into politics, and devoted his tenure to making the Parliament more prominent.
BRUSSELS — David Sassoli, an Italian journalist-turned-politician who was president of the European Parliament and dedicated his later years to seeking to increase its powers during the rocky years of Brexit and the pandemic, died on Tuesday in Italy. He was 65.
His office said on Twitter that he had died in the town of Aviano, in northeast Italy. No cause was given, but he had been in poor health. He was hospitalized with severe pneumonia in September during an annual plenary session of the Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 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 like the fall of the Berlin Wall, before trying his hand at politics in 2009.
He was elected as a member of the European Parliament from the center-left Democratic Party and re-elected twice, in 2014 and 2019, the same year he was voted in as president of the body, whose 705 seats bring together deputies from all 27 European Union member states. He ran an unsuccessful campaign to become mayor of Rome in 2013.
Mr. Sassoli led the Parliament through a difficult period in his two-and-half-year term. He was its first president after Britain left the European Union in early 2020, a historic development that emboldened critics of the E.U. and further fragmented its politics.
Mr. Sassoli 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, he and the Parliament 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, which meets regularly in Strasbourg and carries out much of its work in Brussels, 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 body, and the European Council, which brings together national political leaderships. Mr. Sassoli was praised for fighting to keep the institution 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.” Mr. Sassoli, he added, “was a person of procedures and of a calm stewardship.”
Mr. Sassoli showed a combative side in October, when 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, like an independent judiciary.
“E.U. member states that violate the rule of law should not receive E.U. funds,” Mr. Sassoli said in a letter to the legal service at the time. He added: “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.”
His decision to pick a fight over the issue reflected what he said was his 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 enlarge its role.
said Alberto Alemanno, the Jean Monnet professor of European Union law at the business school HEC Paris.
“David wasn’t a traditional politician, and that made a huge difference, because he felt freer to speak up,” Professor Alemanno said, adding,
Despite the clash with the European Commission, its president, Ursula von der Leyen, was effusive in her praise of Mr. Sassoli on Tuesday, saying he had “constantly defended our union and its values.”
“But he also believed that Europe had to strive for more,” she said in a statement. “He wanted Europe to be more united, closer to its people, more faithful to our values.”
The election for the new president is to take place next week.
David Maria Sassoli was born in Florence, Italy, on May 30, 1956. His father, Domenico, was a journalist and public intellectual. David showed an interest in public life as a youth, becoming involved in the White Rose, a Roman Catholic political association.
He began his journalism career at a young age, working for small newspapers and broadcast outlets, according to his website and a short biography published online by his political group in Parliament. He went on to join the staff of the Rome-based newspaper Il Giorno as a reporter before becoming a news correspondent for the TG3 television network in 1992.
Mr. Sassoli was married to Alessandra Vittorini and had two children, Livia and Giulio. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available. His body was to lie in state in Rome’s town hall on Tuesday.
His death was widely mourned in Italy. Prime Minister Mario Draghi expressed “dismay,” calling Mr. Sassoli “a symbol of balance, kindness and generosity.” 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.
An anchorwoman on Italian state television became too emotional to continue broadcasting reactions to his death and had to be replaced.
Hundreds of European Parliament members and employees gathered Tuesday afternoon outside the organization’s building in Brussels to commemorate Mr. Sassoli and hold a minute of silence.
“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. “We all really liked him.”