Sunak hits back at Greek PM in Elgin Marbles row and warns return would be ‘slippery slope’

PM under fire over snub, as Athens describes No 10 move as ‘unprecedented’ and injury to Greek pride

Archie Mitchell,Adam Forrest
Tuesday 28 November 2023 16:06 GMT
Elgin Marbles in UK 'like cutting Mona Lisa in half', says Greek Prime Minister

Rishi Sunak scrapped a meeting with the Greek prime minister because he broke “assurances” not to use his visit to the UK to focus on the Elgin Marbles, No 10 has said.

A meeting set with Kyriakos Mitsotakis was unexpectedly cancelled after he spoke out about the marbles – known as the Parthenon Sculptures – which he wants returned to Athens from the British Museum.

As the extraordinary row deepened, Downing Street rejected the idea of a loan deal for the Elgin Marbles –warning that it was a “slippery slope” that could encourage the return of more artifacts in British museums to other countries.

Mr Mitsotakis expressed his anger that the meeting during his visit to London was cancelled – in which he planned to raise the prosect of a loan deal so the Parthenon Sculptures could return to Athens.

The Greek government described the snub as “unprecedented” and said it had hurt Greek pride. “Greece is a proud country, with a long history … You can’t just say ‘look, the meeting isn’t going to happen,” said a spokesperson.

The spokesperson also said British public opinion had shifted in Athens’ favour on the issue. “Obviously this has annoyed Sunak, because when you have a difference of opinion it doesn’t mean you don’t go ahead with a meeting.”

But Mr Sunak’s official spokesman insisted that the Greek government had provided “reassurances” that Mr Mitsotakis would not use the visit as a “public platform to relitigate long settled matters”.

The No 10 official added: “Given those assurances were not adhered to, the prime minister felt it would not be productive to hold a meeting dominated by that issue.”

Mr Sunak’s spokesman said Athens was “welcome” to make its position known on the marbles – but felt “those conversations are best had in private”.

The Independent understands that No 10 was angry at the feisty nature of Mr Mitsotakis’ answers to questions by BBC host Laura Kuenssberg, rather than his decision to appear on the programme.

The British Museum houses the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles (AFP via Getty Images)

The row erupted on Monday night as Downing Street confirmed the meeting had been shelved and that Mr Mitsotakis had rejected an alternative meeting with deputy PM Oliver Dowden.

It came after the Greek PM told the BBC that he would use the talks to push for the return of the Elgin Marbles, comparing the current situation to the Mona Lisa being cut in half.

Athens has long demanded the return of the historic works, which were removed from Greece by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century when he was British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

A spokesman for Mr Mitsotakis said he was “disappointed” that Mr Sunak had cancelled on him. A source on the Greek side said Mr Mitsotakis and his team had been left “baffled, surprised and not a little bit annoyed” at the “11th hour” cancellation.

The River God Ilissos sculpture - part of the Elgin Marble (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)

British Museum chairman George Osborne – the former Tory chancellor – has previously said he is exploring ways for the Elgin Marbles to be displayed in Greece, with speculation that this could involve a loan deal in which part of the set would be sent to Athens.

Asked about a potential loan deal, Mr Sunak’s spokesman said No 10 was against such a move and warned that it was a “potentially a slippery slope” that could see pressure for British museums to return other artifacts.

Labour has attacked Mr Sunak as “weak” for snubbing the Greek PM in the increasingly bitter row over the return of the Elgin Marbles.

“To pick a fight with a Nato ally for the sake of a headline shows just how weak Rishi Sunak is,” a Labour spokesman said – as senior Tories also criticised the PM.

Former Tory leader William Hague said the cancellation of the meeting was the Greek PM was “a pity” and “not a great advert for diplomacy”. Mr Sunak’s ally said that it “shouldn’t be impossible” to come to a loan agreement on the Elgin Marbles.

Tory peer Ed Vaizey also criticised Mr Sunak over the cancelled meeting, saying there is “a hell of a lot to talk about” aside from the sculptures.

“You can talk about refugees, you can talk about Israel, Hamas, you can talk about Ukraine and you can talk about having a great friend and ally in the EU,” the former culture secretary told the BBC. “I didn’t know that Rishi Sunak  felt so strongly about the marbles.”

Lord Vaizey also stressed that the majority of the British public widely believed the sculptures should be returned to Greece. “So it’s odd … that this row should then erupt,” he added.

Mr Mitsotakis did manage to meet Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during his visit to the UK capital. Labour has said it would not stand in the way of a loan deal if an arrangement over the marbles can be agreed between the British Museum and the Greeks.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Sir Keir said: “We discussed boosting UK-Greek cooperation in key areas, from delivering economic security to taking climate action. With Labour, Britain and Greece will remain strong partners.”

Transport secretary Mark Harper denied that Mr Sunak had snubbed the Greek PM. He added that the government’s stance is that the Elgin Marbles are “part of the British Museum’s collection” and “we think they should remain there”.

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