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UK and Greece in diplomatic row after Sunak’s Elgin Marbles snub to Mitsotakis

Sections of the Parthenon Marbles are in the British Museum (PA)
Sections of the Parthenon Marbles are in the British Museum (PA) Sections of the Parthenon Marbles are in the British Museum (PA)

It is a “matter of regret” that a diplomatic row has erupted over the Elgin Marbles, a Cabinet minister said, after Rishi Sunak snubbed Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

The Greek leader’s meeting with the Prime Minister due on Tuesday was unexpectedly cancelled following Mr Mitsotakis’s comments about the Parthenon Sculptures, which he wants returned to Athens from the British Museum.

He was offered a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead but turned that down.

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

Transport Secretary Mark Harper rejected the assertion that it amounted to a snub to Mr Mitsotakis.

“The Deputy Prime Minister offered to meet the Greek prime minister today and it proved not possible to make that happen,” Mr Harper told BBC Breakfast.

“That’s a matter of regret. That offer was made.

“But the Government set out its position about the Elgin Marbles very clearly, which is they should stay as part of the permanent collection of the British Museum.”

Asked whether it was a snub, he told Sky News: “The Prime Minister wasn’t able to meet the Greek prime minister. He was offered a meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister, which proved not to be possible for him to take up. So, I don’t think I’d characterise it the way you have.

“Discussions continue between our governments about important matters.”

A source on the Greek side told the PA news agency that Mr Mitsotakis and his team had been left “baffled, surprised and not a little bit annoyed” at an apparent sudden cancellation, especially when preventing migrant sea crossings — one of Mr Sunak’s top five priorities — was high on the agenda.

The diplomatic spat comes after Mr Mitsotakis used an interview ahead of the anticipated talks to push for the return of the sculptures, saying the current situation was like the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.

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

Downing Street, which pushed back against the Greek leader’s Mona Lisa comparison, had indicated that Mr Sunak would reject pleas for the ancient Greek artefacts, on display at the British Museum in London, to be handed back.

Asked about the Greek prime minister’s claims of a last-minute cancellation, a No 10 spokeswoman would only say that the “UK-Greece relationship is hugely important”.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Greek prime minister’s office said: “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 co-operation, 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.”

Mr Mitsotakis used a social media post to express “dismay” that the meeting had been cancelled “just hours before it was due to take place”.

According to an online translation, he said: “Anyone who believes in the correctness and justice of their positions is never afraid of opposing arguments.”

Sections of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum
Sections of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum Sections of the Parthenon Marbles are in the British Museum (PA)

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman stressed Mr Sunak’s support for the law that prevents the marbles from being permanently returned and suggested he would not be in favour of any loan arrangement.

British Museum chairman George Osborne, a former chancellor, has previously said he is exploring ways for the Elgin Marbles to be displayed in Greece, with speculation that this could involve a loan deal in which part of the set would be sent to Athens.

Asked about such an agreement, Mr Sunak’s spokesman told reporters: “We have no plans to change our approach and certainly we think that the museum is the right place for them.”

The official also said the Government had “no plans” to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

Prime Minister of Greece
Prime Minister of Greece Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer met Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis during his trip to London (Leon Neal/PA)

Mr Mitsotakis did manage to meet Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during his visit to the UK.

Sir Keir had indicated he would tell the Greek premier that a Labour government would not change the law but that he would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable to the museum and the Greek government.

Labour criticised Mr Sunak’s decision to cancel his meeting with his Greek counterpart.

A Labour Party spokesman said: “To pick a fight with a Nato ally for the sake of a headline shows just how weak Rishi Sunak is.

“The Prime Minister should have been talking about the economy, immigration, the Middle East, that’s what the country would expect from a leader but Rishi Sunak is no leader.”