How many European Commissioners have died in office?

A grim question for the next time you are setting a general knowledge quiz: How many European Commissioners have died in office?

The answer is three, in 1958, 1981 and 1987.

Michel Rasquin was the very first European Commissioner for Transport and the first Commissioner from Luxembourg, appointed to the Walter Hallstein Commission in 1958. He lasted less than four months, dying on 27 April aged 58. Born in 1899, he was a journalist before the Second World War and the first leader of the Luxembourg Socialist Workers’ Party after the war. He was Luxembourg’s minister for the economy from 1951 until he became a European Commissioner.

Finn Olav Gundelach was the very first Danish Commissioner, appointed in 1973 under François-Xavier Ortoli as Commissioner for the Internal Market and the Customs Union, re-appointed as Vice-President for Agriculture and Fisheries in the Roy Jenkins Commission, and demoted to mere Commissioner for Agriculture under Gaston Thorn. However he lived only a week into his third term, dying aged 55 on 13 January 1981. Born in 1925, he was a career diplomat who had served as Danish ambassador to the UN and the EU, and also vice-president of GATT.

Finally (and let’s hope it stays that way), Alois Pfeiffer was appointed as Commissioner for Economic Affairs and Employment in the first Jacques Delors Commission in 1985, as one of the two German commissioners. He died on 1 August 1987 aged 62. Born in 1924, he was a forester and then a trade unionist, and was nominated by the SPD. He never held elected public office, and was seen by some in Germany as a bit too European and not sufficiently German.

All three of them were simply replaced by nomination by their home government. These days a new Commissioner has to go through hearings in the European Parliament as well. (We’ve had four resignations out of 27 from the current crew, all replaced in that way.)

There is a much more recent case with some similarities: the most recent President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, died a week before the end of his term in January 2022 aged 65. Born in 1956, he was a print and TV journalist in Italy until becoming an MEP for the centre-left Democratic Party in 2009. When he emerged as a front-runner to head the Parliament in 2019, there was a lot of head-scratching. He performed perfectly well in office, however, until falling ill in 2021. His immediate successor in an acting capacity was the First Vice-President, Roberta Metsola, who was then elected to the job at the scheduled election a week later, and is still there until the elections this summer. Presumably if a vacancy occurs a bit earlier in the term, there would need to be a full election process, but it was hardly worth it for seven days.