European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has launched a blistering attack on a nearly empty European Parliament, sparking bitter exchanges with the head of the EU's only directly-elected institution.

Mr Juncker, known for his sharp wit, was angry to find only a handful of MEPs present at the assembly in Strasbourg to hear a report on Malta's just-completed EU presidency.

But his remarks drew a sharp response from parliament head Antonio Tajani, who said his colleague was out of order and should mind his tongue.

"The European Parliament is ridiculous, totally ridiculous," Mr Juncker told the chamber, which seats 751 deputies.

"I salute those who made the effort to turn up but the fact that only about 30 deputies are here for this debate clearly shows that parliament is not serious!" he said.

Mr Tajani interrupted from the podium: "You can criticise the parliament but it is not the commission which controls parliament. It is parliament which controls the commission!"

Mr Juncker retorted: "There are only a few members in the plenary to control the commission. You are ridiculous!"

"Mr President, I ask you, please use different language. We are not ridiculous," Mr Tajani said.

Mr Juncker begged to differ and signed off with a blunt admonition : "I will never again attend a meeting of this kind."

It is a courtesy for the head of the country holding the EU's rotating presidency, in this case Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, to present parliament with a report on their work during the country's six-month leadership.

Mr Juncker, a former long-serving Luxembourg premier, became head of the commission in 2014 promising a more political approach.

He also has a reputation for sometimes undiplomatic language which tends to amuse and infuriate in equal measure.

Mr Tajani, who is Italian, became president of the parliament in January. He previously served as EU transport commissioner from 2010 to 2014.