- By Henry Zeffman, Harrison Jones & Chris Mason
- BBC news
Downing Street said Rishi Sunak canceled a meeting with the Greek prime minister after it was felt his promise not to discuss the Parthenon sculptures publicly had been breached.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the BBC on Sunday that he wanted the artefacts – also known as the Elgin Marbles – to be brought from the British Museum to Greece.
The meeting was canceled on Monday at late notice.
A Greek government source denied assurances had been given to the UK.
They said preparatory discussions for Tuesday’s meeting with the British Prime Minister went smoothly until late Monday afternoon – long after Mr Mitsotakis’ BBC interview with Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday.
In the interview, the Greek leader said that owning some treasures in London and others in Athens is like cutting the Mona Lisa in half.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Tuesday that when the meeting was requested, “the Greek government gave assurances that it would not use the visit as a public platform to resolve “long-resolved issues relating to the ownership of the Parthenon sculptures” – arguing those guarantees were then “not complied with”.
The A spokesman told reporters that Mr Sunak had decided holding the meeting would be “unproductive”.
The Labor Party described the row as “petty” and “petty”.
The sculptures are a collection of ancient Greek treasures from the Parthenon in Athens that were brought to the United Kingdom by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century.
Both Greece and Britain have long-standing positions on the sculptures, but diplomatic talks are expected to focus on other topics.
Transport Minister Mark Harper told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday that it was a shame no meeting had taken place between the two countries after Mr Mitsotakis turned down a second offer to meet Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden.
Asked whether the government’s treatment of the Greek leader had been rude, Mr Harper said the Greeks had been offered a high-level meeting but had the right to their own views. .
Greek Minister Adonis Georgiadis told BBC Radio 4’s World at One program that the row was a “bad day” for UK-Greece relations and Mr Sunak’s decision was a “mistake”.
Underlining the “tremendous respect” for the British people and the friendship between the two countries, the Minister for Labor and Social Security said: “What [the Greek PM] mentioned in the interview are not only his own views but also the sole views of 11 million Greeks.”
Professor Irene Stamatoudi, a former member of the Greek culture minister’s advisory committee, said the controversy “makes Rishi Sunak look like Lord Elgin” – and accused the diplomat of smuggling goods. artifact “to decorate his country house in Scotland”.
She told Today it was “impossible” for the Greek Prime Minister not to answer questions about the Parthenon Sculpture.
Mr Sunak wants to be seen as the guardian of the marbles’ place in London. A senior Conservative source said: “Our position is clear – the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here.”
BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale said the incident went against the government’s strategic objectives, with an official foreign policy review from this year saying “the UK’s ambition is to build a “even stronger relations with our European allies” after Brexit.
On Monday night, Mr. Mitsotakis told reporters he was “deeply disappointed by the sudden cancellation” of the talks.
In an interview with Laura Kuenssberg the previous day, he called for the sculptures to be returned, saying they were “essentially stolen”. He called for cooperation with the British Museum so people can “appreciate” the works “in their original context”.
Mr Mitsotakis met Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer on Monday and will return to Greece after other scheduled meetings.
On Tuesday morning, Greek government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis told SKAI TV that “Britain’s attitude shows disrespect for the prime minister and our country.”
He added that while it was not “common” to cancel a meeting, the Greek government did not want to “escalate the problem with a country with which we have good relations.”
There is a wider debate going on around the place of museums and their collections in a post-colonial world, with Mr Sunak appearing to have decided to take one side of that argument .
Lord Vaizey, chairman of the advisory board of the Parthenon Project dedicated to returning the Elgin marbles to Greece, told the Today program it was “strange” that the Prime Minister canceled the meeting.
The former culture secretary said: “It is tied up to a certain extent in the traditional culture wars, where anyone who dares to say that Britain’s history is not perfect is somehow a traitor. not patriotic.
“The problem is that, from what I gather, every poll of the British public says that they really think the sculptures should be returned.”
Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, said canceling the meeting was “petty” and “petty”, and called Mr Sunak “reckless”.
“The decision to create division where there is no need seems to me to be not only reckless but actually potentially damaging to our international reputation,” she added.
The Labor Party is also distancing itself from reports in a Greek newspaper that it is open to “a legal formula” to return the sculptures to Greece.
Instead, the party said its view was that if the British Museum and the Greek government reached a loan agreement, a Labor government would not stand in the way.
A British government spokesman said there were “no plans” to change the British Museum Act 1963 – which bans the removal of objects from the institution’s collections.
But a loan does not require a change in law and can therefore happen regardless of the views of any Prime Minister.
UNESCO, a United Nations agency established to promote world peace and security through cooperation on arts and culture, told the BBC it was “ready” to broker an agreement between Britain and Greece, “if they express a desire for such assistance”. .
What are the Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles?
- Reliefs and pediments decorate the Parthenon in Athens, built between 447-432 BC
- The marbles brought to England included about half (about 75 meters) of the sculpted reliefs that once ran around the building, along with 17 life-sized marble statues.
- Most of the surviving sculptures are divided equally between London and Athens
- The new Acropolis Museum opened in Athens in 2009. It was designed to display all the surviving sculptures, in their original layout
- Celebrities who have previously participated in the comeback campaign include the late actress and former Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri.
- Art lover Lord Elgin asserted that sculptures in England were more beautiful than the ruined Parthenon at that time.
- In 1801, he negotiated what he claimed was permission from the Ottoman Empire – which then controlled Athens – to remove statues from a classical temple built by the ancient Greeks – and caused a amount of damage to the rubble in doing so
- Fragments of the Parthenon alone are present in about 10 European countries or completely lost.