Love and loathing for EU seen on the streets of Rome
Love it or loathe it, there was a European Union protest to suit all tastes on Saturday in the Italian capital.
Federalists, nationalists, populists, unionists and anarchists headed to one of six rallies and demonstrations called to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the signing of the founding treaty of the European Union.
While 27 EU leaders staged a solemn celebration on the ancient Capitoline Hill, thousands of ordinary people took to the streets, some waving the blue and gold flag of the crisis-plagued Union, others brandishing angry placards.
"The others are very much against Europe and are very critical.
We instead are for a Europe in the spirit of the original treaty.
A free, democratic Europe," said Lucio Pagani, a white-haired unionist walking in warm spring sunshine.
Some 30,000 demonstrators were expected to take part in the various gatherings, with some 5,000 police and security forces on call in case of violence.
"Keep calm and love Europe," read one banner at a pro-European march.
"My life would suck without Europe," read another.
A very different message was heard in a university hall in the heart of Rome, where the rightist Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy) party staged a meeting to denounce the EU and to demand radical reform.
"The EU experience is over for us. It needs to be shut down and we need to start a new path together that is a confederation of free and sovereign nations," said party chief Giorgia Meloni.
Italy used to be one of the most pro-EU states in Europe, but support has waned, with many people angry about the euro currency, which they hold responsible for the country's marked economic decline since its launch in 1999.
Some people are also upset over the influx of more than half a million immigrants since 2014 and accuse the EU of doing little or nothing to help Italy deal with the newcomers.
"Too many migrants? It is their fault," said posters plastered around the city showing the faces of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker.
An ISPOS poll published on Saturday showed just 24 percent of Italians thought the EU brought Italy advantages, while 44 percent said it brought disadvantages.
Some 75 percent of people said Italy was irrelevant or had a secondary role within the EU.
"We are against people celebrating this Europe that was born to bring well-being to everyone but in reality, over the past 10 years, has brought only impoverishment to southern Europe," said Sabino De Razza, a 52-year-old social worker from Bari.
A little more than a kilometer (mile) away, EU supporters laid out a huge EU flag near the old Roman Temple of the Vestal Virgins, while the European anthem -- Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" -- blared out over speakers.
"My father served in two world wars and his life was blighted by war.
I was born towards the end of World War Two and the EU, not through force, has guaranteed trust," said Andrew Macmillan, a Scot who has lived in Italy since 1970.
Britons also joined the pro-EU march, stung, they said, by Britain's vote last year to leave the European Union.
"If we value it, we have to fight for it," said Russell Owens, 51, who owns a press distribution company in Zagreb and originally came from Liverpool.
Thousands of people also marched on Saturday through central London to protest against Brexit, four days before Prime Minister Theresa May launches the start of the formal divorce process from the bloc Britain joined 44 years ago.