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European Parliament President David Sassoli dies at age 65

Mr. Sassoli was at his strongest when he took up the cause of migrants who died crossing the Mediterranean or dissidents such as Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is taking on the Kremlin from a jail cell.Francisco Seco/Associated Press

BRUSSELS — David Sassoli, an Italian journalist who worked his way up in politics while defending the downtrodden and oppressed to become president of the European Union’s Parliament, died in an Italian hospital on Tuesday at 65.

European Council President Charles Michel called Mr. Sassoli a “sincere and passionate European. We already miss his human warmth, his generosity, his friendliness, and his smile.”

Mr. Sassoli, a socialist, had been hospitalized since Dec. 26 because of abnormal functioning of his immune system, his spokesman Roberto Cuillo said. Mr. Sassoli will be buried Friday at Rome’s Santa Maria degli Angeli, the church where state funerals are held.

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Mr. Sassoli had been struggling for months with poor health after he suffered pneumonia caused by the legionella bacteria in September. His health steadily declined and he was forced to miss several important legislative meetings. Yet, as much as possible, he stayed on the job, where his vigor and easy smile had always been a trademark. He was at his strongest when he took up the cause of migrants who died crossing the Mediterranean or dissidents such as Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is taking on the Kremlin from a jail cell.

“Everyone loved his smile and his kindness, yet he knew how to fight for what he believed in,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, reminiscing how Mr. Sassoli had traveled to Germany to see the infamous Berlin Wall come down well over three decades ago.

European unity was his benchmark, just as much as justice among all Europeans was.

“Our union has lost at the same time an Italian patriot, a great European, and a tireless humanist,” French President Emmanuel Macron said.

Over the past few months, he improved enough to preside over a European Parliament session in December to give the EU’s main human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, to Navalny’s daughter. High in symbolism, it showed him at his best. A few weeks later, his wishes for the new year showed him as an optimist with great expectations.

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“We can be that hope when we don’t ignore those in need. When we don’t build walls on our borders. When we fight all forms of injustice. Here’s to us, here’s to hope,” he said in the address.

He leaves his wife, Alessandra Vittorini, and his children, Livia and Giulio.

Pope Francis, who received Mr. Sassoli in an audience last year, sent a heartfelt telegram of condolences to Mr. Sassoli’s wife, paying tribute to him as an “animated believer of hope and charity ... who, in a peaceful and respectful way, worked for the common good with a generous commitment.”

Mr. Sassoli came to lead the European legislature in 2019 following an intricate bout of political infighting among EU leaders, which also saw the German Christian Democrat von der Leyen become European Commission president and the Belgian free-market liberal Michel take the job as EU Council president. Mr. Sassoli and von der Leyen were picked by EU leaders practically out of the blue, stunning themselves and the rest of the world.

Even if he was often overshadowed by von der Leyen and Michel, Mr. Sassoli led an institution which has become ever more powerful over the years and has become instrumental in charting the course of the European Union in many sectors, be it the digital economy, climate, or Brexit.

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An adroit political shaker, using his bonhomie to the hilt, he helped steer several of the most important political issues facing the EU to a successful conclusion — and none more so than the 1.8 trillion-euro pandemic recovery fund and seven-year budget.

His pinnacle came on the European scene but he was just as respected in his native Italy.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi paid tribute: As “a man of institutions, a profound pro-European, a passionate journalist, Sassoli was a symbol of balance, humanity, generosity.”

Mr. Sassoli was first elected to the European Parliament in 2009. He won another term in 2014 and served as its vice president. He started out as a newspaper journalist before entering broadcasting as a high-profile presenter in Italy. It was a stepping stone for his political career.