Parthenon marbles row derails talks between UK’s Sunak, Greece’s Mitsotakis

The Greek PM expressed ‘displeasure’ that Sunak axed their meeting, saying he avoided talks on the disputed marbles.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attends a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, November 14, 2023. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis [Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters]

Diplomatic sparks are flying after Britain’s prime minister abruptly cancelled a meeting with his Greek counterpart in which they were due to discuss long-contested artefacts.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was scheduled on Monday to meet visiting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who planned to raise the status of the Elgin Marbles, a set of 2,500-year-old Greek sculptures that Athens wants Britain to return.

Greece asserts that the marbles, taken from the Parthenon temple by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, were stolen – an assertion denied by Britain.

The issue has been a source of contention between the countries for decades.

Mitsotakis, in a statement, expressed “displeasure” that the British prime minister had cancelled their meeting at the last minute, accusing him of sidestepping the issue.

“Greece’s position on the issue of the Parthenon friezes is well known. I had hoped to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart,” Mitsotakis lamented.

“Those who believe in the rightness and validity of their positions are never afraid to confront the arguments,” he added.

Mitsokis reportedly declined a UK offer to meet Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead.

A Downing Street spokesperson, responding to Mitsotakis’s statement, said “the UK-Greece relationship is hugely important”, citing joint work within NATO and “tackling shared challenges like illegal migration” and the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

“The deputy prime minister was available to meet with the Greek PM to discuss these important issues,” the spokesperson added, without referencing the marbles issue.

An employee poses as he views examples of the Parthenon sculptures, sometimes referred to in the UK as the Elgin Marbles, on display at the British Museum in London, Britain, January 25, 2023. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Examples of the Parthenon Sculptures, sometimes referred to in the UK as the Elgin Marbles, on display at the British Museum in London, Britain [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

Decades-old dispute

The sculptures were taken from the Parthenon temple at the Acropolis in Greece in the early 19th century by British diplomat Thomas Bruce, the earl of Elgin.

Britain maintains it acquired the scriptures legally.

According to the Greek news agency ANA, citing sources within the Greek government, the British prime minister was apparently upset by comments made by his Greek counterpart to the BBC on Sunday.

In his comments, Mitsotakis likened the collection being held at the British Museum to the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.

A source from Britain’s ruling Conservatives told the broadcaster on Monday that “it became impossible for this meeting to go ahead following commentary regarding the Elgin Marbles prior to it”.

Britain’s government has always ruled out giving up ownership of the marbles, which include about half of the 160-metre (525-ft) frieze that adorned the Parthenon.

However, Athens has recently been pushing for a deal that would return the sculptures under some kind of loan arrangement.

The Financial Times last week reported that British opposition leader Keir Starmer would not block a “mutually acceptable” loan deal for the sculptures. A meeting between Mitsotakis and Starmer went ahead on Monday as planned.

But Sunak’s spokesperson said on Monday the UK government had “no plans to change our approach, and certainly we think that the [British] museum is the right place” for the marbles.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies