David Sassoli praised for his ‘solidarity’ with EU lawmakers on China disputes

·6-min read

Members of the European Parliament from across the political spectrum praised David Sassoli, the parliament president who died on Tuesday at 65, for his “clear-cut support” of lawmakers who had run afoul of China.

Sassoli – a centre-left MEP from Italy for a decade, sitting with the Socialists and Democrats grouping – was elected as president of the parliament in July 2019.

Members of the European Parliament stand in front of the front gate in Brussels to observe a minute of silence for President David Sassoli, who died on Tuesday at 65. Photo: dpa
Members of the European Parliament stand in front of the front gate in Brussels to observe a minute of silence for President David Sassoli, who died on Tuesday at 65. Photo: dpa

His tenure coincided with a dramatic period of turbulence in the European Union’s relationship with China, a time when the parliament was often found at the heart of the disputes.

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The tone was set early on in his term, when he ordered an investigation into the EU-China Friendship Group, a now-defunct cohort accused of peddling Beijing’s influence in Brussels.

At other points, Sassoli conferred a human rights award to the Uygur activist Ilham Thoti, who remains detained in China, and had thermal cameras removed from the parliament building because they were made by the Chinese surveillance firm Hikvision.

EU parliament president David Sassoli dead at 65

The company is accused of facilitating a government suppression campaign in Xinjiang, in northwest China.

Miriam Lexmann, a Slovak MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party, was among those who raised the issue with Sassoli.

“He received us in his office and consequently the cameras were removed,” she recalled, adding that “despite ideological and political divisions, he displayed collegial and human openness”.

While Sassoli’s term in office was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, it also coincided with a more outwardly nationalistic and assertive China, which spurred MEPs to find their voices.

In 2019, Sassoli conferred the European Parliament’s top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, to the Uygur activist Ilham Tohti, shown in 2010. Photo: AFP
In 2019, Sassoli conferred the European Parliament’s top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, to the Uygur activist Ilham Tohti, shown in 2010. Photo: AFP

They delivered a steady stream of resolutions and criticisms over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, even Beijing’s economic behaviour. They also sought to bolster EU ties with Taiwan.

Steven Blockmans, research director at the Centre for European Policy Studies, said the statements had a cumulative effect: “Famously, the European Parliament has few powers in foreign policy.

“But with regular and increasingly critical resolutions on human rights violations, and forced labour in China, it has been instrumental in changing the mood music about dealings with China.”

Europe is not a punching bag. … We are an area of freedom, and there is no intimidation we can accept

David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament

Sassoli was not the driving force behind the outspokenness – the role of president is largely representative. Nor was he particularly hawkish towards Beijing himself; several parliamentary staffers said they were always hoping he would say more on China.

But when EU-China ties plunged to a decades-long low last year, after an exchange of sanctions for the first time since the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, Sassoli offered an unequivocal defence of those who did.

“Europe is not a punching bag. It is a great worldwide actor, a great market. We are an area of freedom, and there is no intimidation we can accept,” Sassoli said. He was not sanctioned by Beijing, but after the EU also applied sanctions on Russia last year, he was banned from entering Russia.

Sassoli also immediately invited the MEPs sanctioned by China to a meeting of the Conference of Presidents, on which he sat with the heads of the political groups, for an “extensive exchange of views”.

Reinhard Buetikofer, a Green MEP who is the head of the parliament’s delegation on China and was among those sanctioned, recalled that “led by the president himself, everybody expressed their solidarity.

MEP Reinhard Butikofer recalled Sassoli as “a staunch defender of the EU’s democratic values”. Photo: AFP
MEP Reinhard Butikofer recalled Sassoli as “a staunch defender of the EU’s democratic values”. Photo: AFP

“I am still grateful for this clear-cut support in defence of the democratic right to speak truth to power. David Sassoli was a staunch defender of the EU’s democratic values,” Buetikofer said.

Hannah Neumann, another Green MEP who, as a vice-chairwoman of the subcommittee on human rights, was also sanctioned, said Sassoli was “very loyal to MEPs irrespective of their political group”.

“He vividly protected our rights and privileges coming with the mandate vis-à-vis other EU institutions, or aggressions from the outside, such as those from the Chinese Communist Party,” she said.

The sanctioning led to the collapse of a long-negotiated EU-China investment deal, but emboldened parliamentarians on other issues – especially Taiwan.

In August, as members prepared for a resolution calling for the EU to expand ties with Taiwan, Sassoli received a letter from the Chinese ambassador to the EU, Zhang Ming.

“At this important moment, I hope that you can leverage your role to enable the European Parliament to fully appreciate the seriousness and sensitivity of the Taiwan issue and play a positive and constructive role in upholding the political foundation of China-EU relations,” the ambassador wrote.

People react after the moment of silence for Sassoli in front of the European Parliament in Brussels on Thursday. Photo: Xinhua
People react after the moment of silence for Sassoli in front of the European Parliament in Brussels on Thursday. Photo: Xinhua

Sassoli declined to respond, and a few weeks later received another note from Zhang, urging him to prevent MEPs from making a historic first visit to Taipei.

Again, no response was sent. Even so, the letter so spooked the delegation about the prospect of flying over mainland China with Raphael Glucksmann, a sanctioned MEP, on board that staffers were sworn to silence, according to sources involved in the planning.

“In these times of noise and fury, your calm tamed the swell and your steadfastness ignored the winds,” Glucksmann wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

Sassoli, who had been hospitalised since December 26 due to abnormal functioning of his immune system, was set to step down; the parliament is to elect a new president next week.

Roberta Metsola, a Maltese MEP, is acting president and expected to be named permanently in the role next week.

In a statement, the Chinese Mission to the EU said it was “deeply saddened by the passing of European Parliament President David Sassoli”.

“The Mission of China to the EU expresses its condolences to his family and loved ones.”


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