Sunak cancels Greek PM meeting in Elgin Marbles row – BBC News

  • By Chris Mason
  • Political editor, BBC News

A diplomatic row has broken out between the British and Greek governments over the Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles.

The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was due to meet Rishi Sunak in London, but No 10 cancelled the meeting at the last minute.

The Greek prime minister’s spokesman said he was “disappointed” the meeting had been cancelled at the “11th hour”.

Mr Mitsotakis rejected an alternative meeting with the deputy prime minister.

The cancellation came a day after Mr Mitsotakis told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that the marbles should be returned, as having some of the artefacts in London and the rest in Athens was like cutting the Mona Lisa in half.

The marbles are ancient Greek treasures in the British Museum brought to the UK by the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th Century.

A spokesman for the Office of the Greek Prime Minister told the BBC: “The prime minister is disappointed that Prime Minister Sunak cancelled their bilateral meeting at the 11th hour today.

“Greece and Britain have a very deep history of friendship and cooperation, and the Greek government is extremely surprised by this decision.

“The prime minister was looking forward to discussing a range of topics of mutual interest including the Israel-Gaza conflict, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, climate change, as well as common challenges such as migration, and of course the Parthenon Sculptures.”

Sources with knowledge of the mood in the Greek government said Mr Mitsotakis was “baffled” and “annoyed”.

Video caption,

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis likens having some Elgin Marbles in the UK to ‘cutting Mona Lisa in half’

The meeting had been due to happen at lunchtime on Tuesday and, the BBC understands, was due to last 45 minutes.

The British government confirmed the cancellation and offered the Greek PM a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead.

A senior Conservative source said: “It became impossible for this meeting to go ahead following commentary regarding the Elgin marbles prior to it.

“Our position is clear – the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here. It is reckless for any British politician to suggest that this is subject to negotiation.”

Mr Mitsotakis met the Labour leader Keir Starmer earlier.

He will now return to Greece on Tuesday after his scheduled meetings in the morning – declining the meeting with Mr Dowden.

‘Slippery slope’

Don’t underestimate the politics of this row.

The Conservatives argue it was naive of Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer to meet the Greek leader, given the public view he expressed on the future of the marbles on Sunday.

Labour’s view is they wouldn’t stand in the way of a loan arrangement between the British Museum and Athens if one was arranged.

A spokesperson for the British government said there were “no plans” to change the 1963 British Museum Act – which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

But a loan does not require a change in the law and so could happen irrespective of the view of the British prime minister.

Many Conservatives believe such an arrangement would be a “slippery slope”, as one put it to me.

“Keir Starmer is clearly keen to ignore the contributions generations of British taxpayers have made to keep them safe and share them with the world,” one party source claimed.

But a Labour source said their position was long-standing – a Labour government would not change the law to allow the sculptures to be permanently moved – and Mr Sunak’s behaviour was “pathetic”.

Another source said “what a bizarre piece of culture war theatre”.

A Labour spokesperson said: “If the prime minister isn’t able to meet with a European ally with whom Britain has important economic ties, this is further proof he isn’t able to provide the serious economic leadership our country requires. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party stands ready.”

The trustees of the British Museum are currently exploring the prospect of a loan arrangement with Greece.

The British Museum’s Chair of Trustees, George Osborne, who is the former chancellor, has previously said he is looking to find “some kind of arrangement to allow some of the sculptures to spend some of their time in Greece”.

Speaking to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in October, Mr Osborne said any deal would have to see “objects from Greece coming here” for the first time.

It is thought any decision is at least months away.

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