Downing Street stated that Rishi Sunak called off his meeting with the Greek prime minister due to a perceived breach of the commitment not to discuss the Parthenon Sculptures publicly.
The meeting was canceled on Monday with short notice.
A Greek government source has refuted claims that assurances were given to the UK regarding discussions on the Parthenon Sculptures.
They stated that preparations for the meeting with the UK PM were proceeding smoothly until late afternoon on Monday, after Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis’s interview with Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday. In the interview, Mitsotakis likened having some of the treasures in London and others in Athens to cutting the Mona Lisa in half. However, the PM’s spokesperson asserted that assurances were given by the Greek government that they would not use the visit to publicly discuss matters related to the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures, and this commitment was not upheld.
Consequently, Chancellor Rishi Sunak decided the meeting would not be productive. Labour has criticized the dispute as “petty” and “small-minded.” The Parthenon Sculptures, ancient Greek treasures taken to the UK by Lord Elgin in the 19th century, have been in the British Museum since 1832. Both Greece and the UK have longstanding positions on the sculptures, and diplomatic talks were expected to cover various topics.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper expressed regret on Tuesday that no meeting would occur between the UK and Greece after Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis declined a secondary offer to meet Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden. When asked if the government’s treatment of the Greek leader was rude, Harper stated that the Greeks were offered a senior-level meeting, and they were entitled to their own view.
Greek minister Adonis Georgiadis described the row as a “bad day” for British-Greek relations and called Sunak’s decision a “mistake.” He emphasized his respect for the British people and the friendship between the two countries.
Professor Irene Stamatoudi compared Sunak to Lord Elgin, accusing the diplomat of smuggling artifacts to decorate his Scottish country house. Stamatoudi stated that it was not possible for the Greek PM not to respond to questions about the Parthenon sculptures.
Sunak aims to be seen as a defender of the marbles’ place in London, with a senior Conservative source emphasizing that the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum.
The incident appears to run counter to the government’s strategic aims, as outlined in an official foreign policy review, which emphasizes building stronger relationships with European allies after Brexit.
On Monday evening, Prime Minister Mitsotakis expressed deep disappointment over the abrupt cancellation of the talks. In his interview with Laura Kuenssberg the previous day, he called for the return of the sculptures, describing them as essentially stolen, and proposed a partnership with the British Museum to appreciate the works in their original setting. Mr. Mitsotakis met with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on Monday and is set to return to Greece after other scheduled meetings.
On Tuesday morning, Greek government spokesperson Pavlos Marinakis told SKAI TV that Britain’s attitude showed no respect for the prime minister and their country. He noted that while canceling a meeting was not common, the Greek government didn’t want to escalate the issue with a country with which they have good relations.
The incident contributes to the broader debate on the role of museums and their collections in a post-colonial world, with Mr. Sunak appearing to take a decisive stance on one side of the argument.
Lord Vaizey, chair of the advisory board of the Parthenon Project dedicated to returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece, finds it “odd” for the PM to cancel the meeting. He notes the issue is tied to traditional culture wars, where questioning British history is seen as unpatriotic. Lord Vaizey highlights that public opinion polls consistently show support for the sculptures’ return.
Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, criticizes the cancellation as “petty” and “small-minded,” describing Mr. Sunak’s decision as “reckless” and potentially damaging to the UK’s international reputation.
Labour is distancing itself from Greek newspaper reports suggesting openness to “a legal formula” for returning the sculptures to Greece.
The party clarifies that its stance is not opposing a loan agreement between the British Museum and the Greek government.
The UK government spokesperson states there are no plans to alter the 1963 British Museum Act, preventing object removal.
However, a loan doesn’t require legal changes and could proceed independently of the PM’s position.
Unesco, expresses its readiness to mediate an agreement between the UK and Greece if both parties desire such support.