- By Henry Zeffman, Harrison Jones and Chris Mason
- BBC News
Rishi Sunak has canceled his meeting with the Greek prime minister after he felt a promise not to publicly discuss the Parthenon sculptures had been broken, Downing Street said.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the BBC on Sunday he wanted the objects – also known as the Elgin Marbles – to return from the British Museum in Greece.
The meeting was canceled Monday with 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 had gone smoothly until late Monday afternoon – well after Mr Mitsotakis’ BBC interview with Laura Kuenssberg Sunday.
In the interview, the Greek leader said that owning some treasures in London and others in Athens was like cutting the Mona Lisa in two.
But the prime minister’s official spokesperson said on Tuesday that when the meeting was requested, “the Greek government assured that it would not use the visit as a public platform to rekindle long-settled issues regarding the ownership of the Parthenon sculptures” – arguing from these assurances. were then “not respected”.
The spokesperson told reporters that Mr Sunak had decided it would be “not productive” to hold the meeting.
Labor described the row as “petty” and “petty”.
The sculptures are a collection of ancient Greek treasures from the Parthenon in Athens that were taken and brought to the United Kingdom by the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century.
Greece and the United Kingdom have long-standing positions on the sculptures, but diplomatic discussions are expected to focus on other topics.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday it was “regrettable” no meeting was taking place between the two countries after Mr Mitsotakis declined a secondary offer to meet the deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden.
Asked if the government’s treatment of the Greek leader was rude, Mr Harper said the Greeks had been offered a high-level meeting but were entitled to take their own point of view. view.
Greek Minister Adonis Georgiadis told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that the row was a “bad day” for Anglo-Greek relations and that Mr Sunak’s decision had been a “mistake”.
Stressing his “tremendous respect” for the British people and the friendship between the two countries, the Minister of Labor and Social Security said: “What (the Greek Prime Minister) mentioned in his interview is not only his own opinion is the unique opinion of 11 million Greeks.”
Professor Irene Stamatoudi, a former member of the Greek culture minister’s advisory committee, said the row “doesn’t make Rishi Sunak look better than Lord Elgin” – and accused the diplomat of smuggling items. to decorate his country house in Scotland.
She told Today it was “not possible” for the Greek prime minister not to answer questions about the Parthenon sculptures.
Mr Sunak is keen to be seen as a defender of London’s Marble Square. A senior curator source said: “Our position is clear: the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and have their place here. »
BBC diplomatic correspondent James Landale said the incident went against the government’s strategic aims, with an official foreign policy report from this year saying “the UK’s ambition is to build even stronger relations with our European allies” after Brexit.
On Monday evening, Mr Mitsotakis told reporters he was “deeply disappointed by the abrupt cancellation” of the talks.
In his interview with Laura Kuenssberg the day before, he asked for the sculptures to be returned, saying that they were “essentially stolen”. He called for a partnership with the British Museum so people could “enjoy” the works “in their original settings”.
Mr Mitsotakis met Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer on Monday and will return to Greece later after further planned meetings.
On Tuesday morning, Greek government spokesperson Pavlos Marinakis told SKAI TV that Britain’s “attitude shows no respect for the prime minister and our country.”
He added that although canceling a meeting was not “common”, the Greek government did not want to “aggravate the situation with a country with which we have good relations”.
There is a wider debate about the place of museums and their collections in a postcolonial world, with Mr Sunak appearing to position himself decisively on one side of that argument.
Lord Vaizey, who chairs the Parthenon Project advisory board dedicated to returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece, told the Today program it was “strange” for the Prime Minister to cancel the meeting.
The former culture minister said: “This is to some extent linked to the traditional culture wars, where anyone who dares to say that British history was not perfect is somehow unpatriotic.
“The problem is that, from what I can understand, all the opinion polls of the British public indicate that they think the sculptures should be returned.”
Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, said it was “petty” and “petty” to cancel the meeting, and called Mr Sunak “reckless”.
“Having decided to create a division where none existed seems to me to be not only reckless, but potentially very damaging to our international reputation,” she added.
Labor is also distancing itself from reports in a Greek newspaper suggesting it would be open to “a legal formula” for the sculptures’ return to Greece.
Instead, the party says its position is that if the British Museum and the Greek government reached a loan deal, a Labor government would not stand in the way.
A British government spokesperson said there were “no plans” to change the British Museum Act 1963, which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.
But a loan does not require a change in the law and so can happen regardless of the Prime Minister’s position.
UNESCO, a United Nations agency created to promote global peace and security through cooperation in arts and culture, told the BBC it “stands ready” to negotiate an agreement between the United Kingdom and Greece, “if they express a desire for such support”. .
What are the Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles?
- Friezes and pediment figures that decorated the Parthenon temple in Athens, built between 447 and 432 BC.
- The marbles brought to Britain include around half (around 75 meters) of the carved frieze that once surrounded the building, as well as 17 life-size marble figures.
- Most of the surviving sculptures are divided approximately equally between London and Athens.
- The new Acropolis Museum opened in Athens in 2009. It is designed to display all surviving sculptures, in their original layout.
- Celebrities previously involved in the campaign for their comeback include the late actress and former Greek Minister of Culture, Melina Mercouri.
- Lord Elgin, an art lover, claimed that sculptures were better off in Britain than the then dilapidated Parthenon.
- In 1801, he negotiated what he claimed was permission from the Ottoman Empire – then in control of Athens – to remove the statues from the classical temple built by the ancient Greeks – and in the process caused some damage to the ruins.
- Fragments of the Parthenon have been found in around ten European countries, or have even been completely lost.