Enrico Letta is a former prime minister of Italy and secretary of the Democratic Party. He is also president of the Jacques Delors Institute.
In politics, there are those who follow the course of history, and then there are those who change history. David Sassoli, who died Tuesday aged 65, was among the latter. As president of the European Parliament, he left an indelible mark on European history, and he did so by defending and strengthening democracy during the coronavirus pandemic, the Continent’s toughest challenge since the birth of the European Union.
While everything was closing and the whole of Europe was going into lockdown, while international travel and flights stopped and the lights of many institutions went out, David made a courageous and far-sighted choice that would make history. He chose to keep the Parliament open, making the institution a protagonist at a crucial moment, when the most natural thing would have been to go the other way.
Under David’s watch, the Parliament innovated and continued to function remotely, thanks to the application of new technologies. It was a first in history, and a conscious and necessary choice, to continue making the voices of millions of citizens heard within the European institutions. “Democracy cannot be suspended, especially in the midst of such a dramatic crisis,” David said, as he opened the first remote Parliament session.
Because David kept Parliament open, it became the protagonist in decisions that led to the birth of the NextGenerationEU recovery plan and a Europe of solidarity. What would the European response to the pandemic have been like if it had remained closed? Certainly different, I am convinced.
Thanks to David’s contribution, Europe chose solidarity and help for the weakest; it chose to help the countries most affected by the crisis (starting with Italy). Unlike what was done 10 years ago, it chose to overcome national vetoes and to start taking the first steps toward a social Europe and a Europe of health.
David showed leadership and determination, and he managed to do so without ever losing his kindness, his drive for inclusion and his grace. He did so through battles for rights, democracy and the rule of law. His commitment to greater European integration and greater closeness between institutions and citizens was constant.
He fought to make institutions open and transparent, in the firm belief that “the defense and promotion of our founding values of freedom, dignity and solidarity must be pursued every day inside and outside the EU,” to use the words he spoke during his inauguration as Parliament president.
Those words and the sentiment they expressed shaped his mandate, during which his authoritative voice was repeatedly raised in defense of EU citizens who risked having their democratic rights denied — by illiberal reforms in Poland and Hungary, or by authoritarian drifts in other EU countries.
David was very clear that Europe’s strength is realized in its ability to develop an institutional architecture centered on the values of democracy and solidarity, and therefore capable of reducing injustices and social inequalities. He called on European institutions to make greater efforts at guaranteeing protection and support to those who feel defeated by the epochal changes of the last decade.
His sensitivity to this issue is the greatest political legacy that David leaves us. Faced with the challenges that still await us, we will all have to prove that we are up to it.