Greece ‘Displeased’ Over Cancelled Sunak Meeting in Elgin Marbles Row

The UK government said that it won’t be changing the law, under which the removal of artifacts from the British Museum is prohibited.
Greece ‘Displeased’ Over Cancelled Sunak Meeting in Elgin Marbles Row
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speaks during a news conference at Maximos Mansion in Athens, Greece, on Nov. 11, 2020. (Costas Baltas/Reuters)
Evgenia Filimianova

The prime minister of Greece has expressed his “displeasure” over the decision by Downing Street to cancel his meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in a row over the Elgin marbles.

Mr. Sunak was meant to meet with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday, but the plans were cancelled “just hours before,” said the Greek prime minister.

Mr. Mitsotakis was offered a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead but refused the offer.

Speaking to Sky News, Transport Secretary Mark Harper rejected the assertion that the UK government snubbed the Greek prime minister and said it was “regrettable” that he didn’t meet with Mr. Dowden.

In what can incur diplomatic tensions between Greece and the UK, the decision to cancel the meeting follows comments by Mr. Mitsotakis over whether the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, should be returned to Greece by Britain.

Marble friezes and statues that once adorned the pediments and pillars of the Parthenon are now on permanent display in the British Museum in London. Greece claims they were stolen by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s when he was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

Lord Elgin claimed he removed the sculptures under the permission of the Ottoman authorities, saving them for the sake of history while the temple fell into ruin.

Mr. Mitsotakis told the BBC on Sunday that it wasn’t an “ownership question” but a “reunification argument.”

“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, do you think your viewers would appreciate the beauty of the painting in such a way?” Mr. Mitsotakis said.

The UK government’s position is “clear” in that the marbles should “stay as part of the permanent collection of the British Museum,” said Mr. Harper.

The removal of objects from the institution’s collection is prohibited under the 1963 British Museum Act.

Mr. Sunak’s spokesperson said that the government wasn’t planning to change the law. The opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer, who met with Mr. Mitsotakis during his visit, has indicated that Labour would not change the law either.

However, Labour would not be against a loan deal if one is agreed by the British Museum and the Greek government.

Sections of the Elgin Marbles are displayed at the British Museum in London on Nov. 22, 2018. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Sections of the Elgin Marbles are displayed at the British Museum in London on Nov. 22, 2018. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles (BCRPM), which has been long campaigning for the reunification of the Elgin Marbles, opposed the idea of “lending” the marbles to Greece.

“The British Museum/UK should not ‘lend’ the Parthenon Marbles it holds but rather give them back to what is ‘their natural habitat’—the Acropolis Museum in Athens,” said BCRPM in an email to The Epoch Times, quoting its vice-chair Paul Cartledge.

Refusal to meet with Mr. Mitsotakis showed “truly shocking disrespect,” he added.

It can only serve “to weaken the government’s case for the retention of the marbles,” Mr. Cartledge said.

The campaigners also said that Mr. Sunak’s decision suggested “guilt and weakness” and is part of the prime minister’s “desperate attempt to appeal to his nationalist Tory right-wing.”

Asked about the last-minute cancellation, a No 10 spokeswoman said that the “UK-Greece relationship is hugely important.”

Greece is UK’s NATO ally and the first country of arrival in Europe for irregular migrants and asylum seekers that are often heading west and north.

Mr. Mitsotakis was looking to discuss common challenges, such as migration,” the Israel/Gaza conflict, and the war in Ukraine with Mr. Sunak.

Given Mr. Sunak’s pledge to stop small boats from crossing the English Channel and the government’s focus on curbing illegal migration, stirring diplomatic trouble with Greece may not prove a helpful move.

Mr. Harper, however, said that “discussions continue” between the UK and Greece about “important matters.”

“I’m sure there’ll be future opportunities for the Prime Minister and him to meet in the future to talk about important issues,” the transport minister added.

The Greek PM raised the issue of the ancient sculptures during his visit in Britain two years ago. In his meeting with then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Mr. Mitsotakis heard that the matter was “one for the trustees of the British Museum.”

The British Museum has insisted there is a “positive advantage and public benefit” in having some of the sculptures in London.

PA contributed to this report. 
Evgenia Filimianova is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in UK politics, parliamentary proceedings and socioeconomic issues.