Maltese politician Roberta Metsola has secured overwhelming support to become president of the European Parliament, making her the first woman to hold the post for 20 years.

Ms Metsola succeeds Italian socialist David Sassoli in the mainly ceremonial role presiding over the 705-member parliament of the European Union, after he died this month aged 65.

Ms Metsola, of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), defeated two other female candidates, winning 458 of the 616 validly cast votes in the first round, meaning no run-off rounds - normal practice for the presidency election - were required.

"Congratulations Roberta Metsola and indeed Happy Birthday," Pedro Silva Pereira said after announcing the result, which led to a standing ovation in the chamber in Strasbourg.

Ms Metsola, who turned 43 today, said in a campaign message on Twitter that it was time for the assembly to be led by a woman and that it should connect with EU citizens beyond the "bubbles" of Brussels and Strasbourg where it meets.

In her acceptance speech, the newly elected president paid tribute to the late Ashling Murphy, whose funeral took place today in Co Offaly. Ms Metsola told the parliament that she stood on the shoulders of women like Ms Murphy, whose life had been "stolen".

Mr Sassoli had been due to step down this week as part of a power-sharing deal under which parliament's socialist group would make way halfway through the assembly's five-year term for a candidate from the EPP grouping.

The European Parliament, which adopts and amends legislative proposals and decides on the EU budget, has had only two female presidents, Simone Veil and Nicole Fontaine, both French, since it became a directly elected assembly in 1979.

A member of the European Parliament since 2013, Ms Metsola campaigned as a student for Malta to become a member of the EU.

A Mediterranean archipelago with a population of just over 500,000, Malta became the EU's smallest member state when it joined the bloc in 2004.

Ms Metsola styles herself as a pro-LGBTQ progressive and champion of women's rights. But her tough stance over abortion has drawn criticism from opponents.

Abortion is illegal in largely Catholic Malta and Ms Metsola in June voted against a report urging all member states to offer safe access to terminations.

That stance saw the Left and Green groups in parliament field two staunchly pro-choice feminists as their challengers.

Additional reporting: AFP