Roberta Metsola of Malta has been elected president of the European Parliament, taking over for a two and a half-year term after the death of David Sassoli last week.
She is only the third woman elected to the post and on her 43rd birthday she is the parliament’s youngest president.
Mr Sassoli, 65, had been sick for several months, and before his death the Italian Socialist politician declined to seek another term.
Christian Democrat Ms Metsola was the candidate of the parliament’s biggest group, and she received 458 of the 616 votes cast on Tuesday. She had already been acting president since Mr Sassoli’s death on January 11.
Her election puts women in three of the four biggest jobs in the 27-nation bloc. Ursula von der Leyen is the European Commission president and Christine Lagarde runs the powerful European Central Bank.
The European Council, which represents the governments of the 27 member states, is lead by a man, Charles Michel, who hosts the summits of the bloc’s leaders.
“I know that having the first female president of this house since 1999 matters both inside and outside these rooms, but it must go further,” Ms Metsola said. “Our institution commits to having more diversity, gender equality, guaranteeing women’s rights, all our rights must be reaffirmed.”
She will lead an EU institution which has become more powerful over the years and been instrumental in charting the course of the 27-nation bloc on issues such as the digital economy, climate change and Brexit.
My appeal is to rediscover the purpose of Kohl and Mitterrand and leave behind the entrenchment of the past as we look to the futureRoberta Metsola
The European Parliament represents the EU’s 450 million citizens and refers to itself as “the heart of European democracy”.
Known as a committed bridge-builder between parties, Ms Metsola said she would stick to Mr Sassoli’s style of work.
“David fought hard to bring people around the same table. It is that commitment to holding the constructive forces in Europe together that I will build on,” she said.
She referred to giants of European post-war politics like German Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl and French Socialist Francois Mitterrand to overcome party divisions and give her guidance.
“My appeal is to rediscover the purpose of Kohl and Mitterrand and leave behind the entrenchment of the past as we look to the future,” she said.
The parliament has long been the lesser EU institution compared with the executive European Commission and the European Council.
For many years, the parliament, which sits in Strasbourg, France, and Brussels were seen as a money-guzzling talking shop where politicians who had served their national purpose were often sent.
As it gained decision-making powers the legislature has become a more forceful player on the European scene, and Ms Metsola wants to continue that trend.
“We need to strengthen it. We cannot be afraid of reform,” she said.
“The next part of the mandate will see a window of opportunity to make our parliament more modern, more effective and more efficient. We must seize the opportunity.”
Ms Metsola is the first politician from Malta to hold such a high position in the EU.
“I am a woman from a small island in the middle of Europe’s southern sea. I know what it means to be the underdog. I know what it means to be pigeonholed,” she said.
“I know what this means for every girl watching today. I know what it means for everyone who dares and whoever dared to dream.”