Mon. Feb 26th, 2024

Rishi Sunak is embroiled in a deepening row with Athens after cancelling a meeting with the Greek prime minister over the Elgin Marbles.

Downing Street said the talks had only been agreed on the basis the Greeks would not publicly lobby for the return of the ancient artefacts, on display and owned by the British Museum.

But Greek sources said that is completely untrue and they never would have agreed to that.

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

On Sunday, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the BBC he planned to raise the issue with Mr Sunak in a meeting scheduled for today, saying the situation was like the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half – as some sculptures remain in their country of origin.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Pic: Reuters

However last night the talks were unexpectedly cancelled, leaving Mr Mitsotakis and his team “baffled, surprised and not a little bit annoyed”.

Greek sources said many geo-political issues were high on the agenda – including preventing migrant sea crossings.

They denied giving assurances not to discuss the marbles and said they only found out about the cancellation late yesterday evening – long after the BBC interview, in which Mr Mitsotakis did not say anything new.

This is at odds with the account of Mr Sunak’s official spokesman, who said that when the Greeks requested the meeting they said they would not use the UK visit “as a public platform to relitigate long settled matters relating to the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures”.

“Given those assurances were not adhered to, the prime minister felt it would not be productive to hold a meeting dominated by that issue, rather than the important challenges facing Greek and British people,” he said.

Read more:
What are Elgin Marbles and how did they end up in Britain?
March: ‘No plans’ for Elgin Marbles law change to return

Both Greece and the UK have long-standing positions on the sculptures.

While Greece maintains they were stolen, the 1963 British Museum Act prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

The issue of ownership has been parked in recent years with George Osborne, the chairman of the British Museum and former chancellor, pushing for a temporary loan arrangement.

Lord Ed Vaizey, a former culture secretary who chairs a group seeking to strike a repatriation deal, called the cancelled meeting an “unexpected plot twist” and said Mr Sunak had put himself in “the front and centre of a row he did not need to be involved in”.

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Lord Vaizey explains the Elgin Marbles row – and dog interrupts

He told Sky News: “There’s a traditional form of words that every prime minister and every British politician uses, they say that the British Museum owns the Elgin Marbles and the future of the Elgin Marbles in terms of whether or not they’re loaned to Greece is a matter for the trustees of the British Museum, and we see no reason to change our policy.”

He said that this is the reported position of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer “so you can easily get away with it and you wouldn’t have caused a row at all”.

The Financial Times has reported Sir Keir, who represents the Holborn & St Pancras constituency – home to the British Museum – was due to tell Mr Mitsotakis that Labour will not change the law regarding the marbles at a meeting on Monday but “if a loan deal that is mutually acceptable to the British Museum and the Greek government can be agreed, we won’t stand in the way”.

Sky News understands government officials are opposed to this plan and have discussed legal ways they could block any export of the Elgin Marbles.

Some reports have suggested the real reason Downing Street cancelled the meeting is because Mr Mitsoktakis met with Sir Keir before Mr Sunak.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) meets Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London. Picture date: Monday November 27, 2023.
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) meets Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London.

Shadow policing minister Alex Norris told Sky News that “if that’s the reason for it then it is extraordinary”.

He added: “I thought the logic that we’ve heard overnight that the prime minister didn’t want to discuss that topic was pretty thin.

“Ultimately Greece is a huge, important strategic ally of ours on the issue of migration which Rishi Sunak talks about every day.

“Similarly on the economy, cultural issues, we have got lots of Greek people who live in this country and vice versa. So of course he should be meeting with the prime minister when he’s in this country. I’m very, very surprised that he hasn’t.”

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Transport Secretary Mark Harper has dismissed the idea that Rishi Sunak

Transport Secretary Mark Harper jumped to the government’s defence in media rounds this morning, saying it is a “matter of regret” that the row erupted.

He rejected the characterisation of Mr Sunak’s actions as a snub, telling Sky News Mr Mitsotakis was offered a meeting with deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden “which proved not to be possible for him to take up”.

“Discussions continue between our governments about important matters,” he added.

The usual protocol would normally mean a visiting prime minister would meet Mr Sunak, rather than a more junior minister.

Greek development minister Adonis Georgiadis said this marked a “bad day” for relations between London and Athens and Mr Sunak’s view was at odds with “11 million Greek people and I think many more millions of people around the world”.

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