Elgin Marbles row erupts as Greek PM accuses Sunak of cancelling meeting at 11th hour

Kyriakos Mitsotakis left ‘baffled, surprised, and not a little bit annoyed’, source says

Maryam Zakir-Hussain
Tuesday 28 November 2023 09:51 GMT
Greece wants its treasured Elgin marbles back from the British

A diplomatic row has erupted after Rishi Sunak was accused of cancelling a meeting with the Greek prime minister at the 11th hour.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed disappointment that the prime minister cancelled the meeting in which he planned to raise the prospect of the return of the Elgin Marbles during his visit to London.

The British government confirmed the meeting had been shelved, as Mr Mitsotakis rejected an alternative meeting with the deputy prime minister.

The diplomatic spat comes after Mr Mitsotakis had used an interview ahead of the anticipated talks to push for the return of the Elgin Marbles, saying the current situation was like the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.

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

A source on the Greek side said he and his team had been left “baffled, surprised and not a little bit annoyed” at an apparent sudden cancellation, especially when preventing migrant sea crossings - one of Mr Sunak’s top five priorities - was high on the agenda.

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

Labour said that, if Mr Sunak had scrapped the talks because of controversy over the Elgin Marbles, then it showed he “isn’t able to provide the serious economic leadership our country requires”.

Downing Street, which pushed back against the Greek leader’s Mona Lisa comparison, had earlier indicated that Mr Sunak would reject pleas for the ancient Greek artefacts, on display at the British Museum in London, to be handed back.

In a statement, a spokesman for Mr Mitsotakis said: “The prime minister is disappointed that prime Minister Sunak cancelled their bilateral meeting at the 11th hour today.

“Greece and Britain have a very deep history of friendship and co-operation, and the Greek government is extremely surprised by this decision.

“The prime minister was looking forward to discussing a range of topics of mutual interest including the Israel/Gaza conflict, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, climate change, as well as common challenges such as migration, and of course the Parthenon Sculptures.”

The prime minister cancelled a meeting with the Greek PM at the 11th hour (PA)

Mr Mitsotakis, in a statement published on X, formerly Twitter, spoke of his “dismay” that the meeting had been cancelled “just hours before it was due to take place”.

According to an online translation, he said: “Anyone who believes in the correctness and justice of their positions is never afraid of opposing arguments.”

On Monday, the prime minister’s official spokesman stressed Mr Sunak’s support for the law that prevents the marbles from being permanently returned and suggested he would not be in favour of any loan arrangement.

British Museum chairman George Osborne, a former 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 such an agreement, Mr Sunak’s spokesman told reporters: “We have no plans to change our approach and certainly we think that the museum is the right place for them.

“I haven’t asked him specifically about short-term or new ideas that have been put forward, but I think he’s been fairly robust on his position.”

The official also said the government had “no plans” to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

“We have cared for the marbles for generations and our position is we want that to continue. The world comes to the UK regularly to see the marbles and there are no plans to change that or to change the law,” he said.

Mr Mitsotakis did manage to meet with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during his visit to the UK capital.

Sir Keir had indicated he would tell the Greek premier that a Labour government would not change the law, but that he would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable to the museum and the Greek government.

A Labour readout published after the meeting on Monday did not mention the sculptures.

After Mr Mitsotakis said his meeting with Mr Sunak had not gone ahead, a spokeswoman for Labour said: “If the prime minister isn’t able to meet with a European ally with whom Britain has important economic ties, this is further proof he isn’t able to provide the serious economic leadership our country requires.

“Keir Starmer’s Labour Party stands ready.”

On Sunday, Greece’s prime minister argued a return of the sculptures was about “reunification” of the monument. He told the BBC: “It is as if I told you that you would cut the Mona Lisa in half, and you will have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum.”

Asked if Mr Sunak recognised that characterisation, his spokesman said: “Obviously it’s not something we would agree with.

“These were legally acquired at the time, they’re legally owned by the trustees of the museum. We support that position and there’s no plan to change the law which governs it.”

No 10 has been contacted for comment.

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