Brussels, Jan 11, (dpa/GNA) - European leaders paid warm tributes to the memory of the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, who died on Tuesday morning from a serious illness.
He was 65.
"Today is a sad day for Europe. Our Union loses a passionate European, a sincere democrat and a good man," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a statement.
European Economy Commissioner and fellow Italian, Paolo Gentiloni, said Sassoli was a generous and popular man who will be remembered as a "democratic leader and Europeanist."
In his time in office, Sassoli managed the European Parliament's transition to remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as helping EU leaders steer the bloc's unprecedented pandemic recovery package to adoption.
He also reached an agreement with the EU governments on the bloc's long-term budget in 2020.
In the coming weeks, the European Parliament is to elect his successor. His untimely death comes after a long period of political wrangling between the various parliamentary groups to select his replacement.
Sassoli told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera last month that he was not planning to stand for re-election in early 2022.
An EU parliamentarian for Malta, Roberta Metsola from the center-right European People's Party (EPP) is the most likely replacement.
"I am heartbroken. Europe has lost a leader, I have a lost a friend, democracy has lost a champion," Metsola said on Twitter.
Sassoli belonged to the Social Democratic party Partito Democratico (PD).
He had been president of the European Parliament since July 2019, replacing his compatriot Antonio Tajani from the conservative Forza Italia.
Before that, he had been vice president of the European Parliament from 2014 to 2019. He worked for around three years, from 2014 to 2017, as a representative of then-European Parliament president Martin Schulz.
As European Parliament president, Sassoli represented the elected body in relation to other European Union institutions.
He also presented the European Parliament's views internationally and in legal matters.
Elected by EU legislators for a two-and-a-half year term, the European Parliament president chairs the legislature's largest meetings.
As president, Sassoli was responsible for signing EU legislation into law, as well as endorsing the EU budget.
The European Parliament lowered the EU flag to half mast on Tuesday in his memory.
In Rome, Italian Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, paid tribute to his compatriot, saying his "untimely and sudden death leaves us dismayed." Draghi offered his condolences to Sassoli's wife and children.
"Ciao David, lifelong friend," Italy's Culture Minister Dario Franceschini tweeted, in one of the first reactions to the news.
Sassoli died in a hospital in the north-eastern Italian municipality of Aviano, his spokesman confirmed to dpa.
His spokesman said on Twitter that the time and place of the funeral would be announced in the coming hours.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz likewise expressed his dismay at Sassoli's death.
According to a statement on Twitter released by his spokesperson, Scholz said: "Europe has lost a dedicated parliament president, Italy a shrewd politician, and Germany a good friend."
Meanwhile Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Sassoli had "always succeeded in bridging divides."
"We will not forget his commitment to dealing humanely with refugees," she wrote on Twitter.
On Monday, the European Parliament confirmed he had been admitted to hospital in Italy on December 26 "because of a serious complication due to a dysfunction of the immune system."
The Italian center-left politician spent several days in hospital in September with pneumonia. He also had to miss the legislature's October plenary session due to illness.
The Centro di Riferimento Oncologico hospital in Aviano did not respond to requests for information early Tuesday morning.
Born in Florence on May 30, 1956, Sassoli had been a member of the EU assembly for more than 10 years, following a switch from journalism to politics.
He got his start in journalism working for smaller newspapers, eventually joining the Rome daily Il Giornio in 1985.
Sassoli later switched to television. His former role as a presenter of the main evening news on RAI public television means that Sassoli's face is quite well known in Italy.
He was critical of many EU members' migration policies and repeatedly advocated on behalf of migrants.
In Italy, migration is a contentious subject, especially between left and right-wing parties, as a large number of migrants arrive in the Mediterranean country in boats in a bid to get into the EU.
Sassoli was also considered a progressive Catholic. According to his party, he was a boy scout and was involved in Catholic youth groups.
He was married and had two children.