Speech by President von der Leyen on the occasion of the memorial ceremony for President David Maria Sassoli
“Speech as prepared”
Dear Enrico Letta,
And all those who mourn David Sassoli today,
This flower, a white rose, meant a lot to David. As a young student in Rome, he led a youth group called ‘La Rosa Bianca’, ‘die Weiße Rose’, in memory of the brave young Germans who fought against the Nazis. People like them were role models for David Maria Sassoli. Their values were his values: Anti-fascism, democracy, respect for human dignity. And David fought for these values throughout his life. In his very first speech as President of this Parliament, he spoke about the White Rose – and I quote: ‘The European Union is not an accident of history. Our history is built on Sophie and Hans Scholl’s desire for freedom, on their pain and their desire of fraternity. We are not an accident of history, but the children and grandchildren of people who found the antidote against nationalism.’ Indeed, we are the children and grandchildren of that White Rose.
This is also what Europe meant to David Sassoli. This is what he believed in. He believed that our Union of European nations is the answer to centuries of war on our continent. He believed in our responsibility to be faithful to our history. And he always lived up to this responsibility. Last summer, David asked me to join him on a visit to the former concentration camp of Fossoli, in Italy. A place where Nazi soldiers slaughtered tens of Italian partisans fighting for our collective freedom. David Sassoli had a special connection to that place. After the war, a man called David Maria Turoldo, a Catholic friar who had joined the Resistance, turned the concentration camp into a shelter for war orphans. David Maria Sassoli was named after him. It was a very touching moment for me. We met the survivors and the children of those who got killed in that camp. And when the trumpets played ‘the silence’ to commemorate the victims, in the most solemn moment of the celebration, David broke protocol and took my hand. A simple gesture of unity that was worth a million words. On that occasion, David said – and I quote: ‘Our Europe of democracy is a promise that was born with the Liberation. Have you ever wondered why authoritarian regimes – all of them – are so afraid of Europe? We do not wage war, we do not impose our model. So why are they so worried about us? There is only one reason. Our values make them afraid. Because freedom leads to equality, justice, transparency, opportunities and peace. And if it happened in Europe, it can happen everywhere. Let us not forget who we are and what thirst for Europe there is in the world.’
It was this passion for Europe and democracy that drove him in his daily work as President of the European Parliament. That is why he was so keen on protecting democracy and the rule of law in each and every country of our Union. That is why he fought so hard to treat migrants with dignity and solidarity, and to always put human life first. That is why, as a devout Catholic, he supported LGBTI rights and everyone’s freedom to love whomever they wanted. It was David Sassoli’s love for democracy, not just his long career in journalism, that made him fight for media freedom and the protection of journalists. Everyone in this Parliament knows that President Sassoli never shied away from defending Europe against those who talk it down. In parallel, David was never satisfied with Europe as it is. He wanted Europe to strive for more, to get closer to our founders’ dream. David was a man of vision, a dreamer and a maker. And he made our Union progress so much during his mandate as President of this Parliament. You mentioned that earlier, dear Enrico Letta. When the pandemic hit, David dared to take unprecedented decisions to keep our democracy up and running. He allowed for virtual votes, to keep you safe and keep the Parliament working. Because you are the voice of Europe’s people. And democracy is government of the people, for the people, and by the people.
We have all known David as a kind man, who did not lose his smile, even during these last, difficult months. Someone who entered politics for passion, not power, in a spirit of true service to the common good. In these days, people from all sides of the political spectrum pay tribute to David Sassoli. His passion and his honesty shine through political divides. David Sassoli was a good man. ‘Il presidente buono’, as someone called him. And David was a good friend. But today, I would like to remember him first and foremost as a passionate European, a man whose beliefs were shaped by Europe’s history, and a visionary whose blue eyes always looked towards the future and a better Europe. In his own words: ‘When all the walls will fall, when the spirit of nationalism will fade away, then let us enjoy the beauty of being Italian, without feeling separated and divided from others, what will there be at the end of the path? There will be Europe.’
We will miss him dearly. After all our meetings, whenever we said goodbye, David always said to me, in French: ‘Bon courage’. Today I would like to wish him farewell in Italian: ‘Buona strada, David. E viva l’Europa.’