Greece’s prime minister has criticised the decision of his British counterpart Rishi Sunak to cancel planned talks at which he had hoped to raise the issue of the Parthenon marbles, as disagreements over the antiquities erupted with renewed vigour.
As aides described Sunak’s move as “wrong and undignified”, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is visiting London, voiced irritation at the scheduled Downing Street meeting being called off at the 11th hour.
“I [want to] express my annoyance at the fact that the British prime minister cancelled our scheduled meeting a few hours before it was due to take place,” the centre-right leader said in a statement released by his Maximou office as the diplomatic row intensified.
“Greece and Britain are united by traditionally strong ties of friendship and the framework of our bilateral relations is exceptionally broad. The views of Greece on the Parthenon sculptures are well known.
“I had hoped to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart along with other international challenges: Gaza; Ukraine; the climate crisis; migration.”
The statement ended with Mitsotakis berating Sunak for failing to rise to the challenge of discussing the fate of antiquities that have spawned the west’s longest running cultural row. “Whoever believes in the correctness and justice of his views is never afraid of opposing arguments,” it read.
The Greek premier had been due to visit Downing Street at lunchtime on Tuesday, the last day of his trip to the UK. But on Monday evening, as he held talks with the Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, word came through that Sunak would be cancelling the meeting.
Officials travelling with the Greek PM said there could be no doubt that Mitsotakis’s comments about the classical carvings in a BBC interview had clearly played a role, despite British government sources initially citing a programme clash.
During the interview on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, the Greek leader had reiterated his country’s longstanding request for the Parthenon treasures to be “reunited” with other sculptures beneath the temple they had once adorned, saying the division of the artwork between London and Athens was like “cutting the Mona Lisa in half”.
The remarks seem to have irritated Sunak to the point that he had felt there was no reason to hold the talks.
Insiders in Athens acknowledged that the Greek premier’s decision to meet Starmer before Sunak may also have contributed to the Downing Street snub.
But they added that Greek irritation had been underscored by “the clumsiness” with which the Downing Street talks had been so abruptly cancelled – even if Mitsotakis’ closest aides privately confessed to a preference for Starmer over Sunak, an irony for a party that inhabits the same political landscape as the Tories.
A No 10 spokesperson said: “The UK-Greece relationship is hugely important. From our work together in Nato, to tackling shared challenges like illegal migration, to joint efforts to resolve the crisis in the Middle East and war in Ukraine.”
One senior Conservative source, referring to the sculptures as the Elgin marbles – after Lord Elgin, the Scottish diplomat who controversially requested their removal from the Acropolis in the early 19th century – 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.”
Sunak had previously made clear he would never support changing legislation drawn up in 1963 that forbids the British Museum parting with its collection.
Mitsotakis, whose New Democracy party won a second term in office in July, has made return of the treasures to the country where they were carved 2,500 years ago a priority of his next four years in power.
Late on Monday, however, it was clear Anglo-Greek tensions – of a kind unseen in decades – had clouded the horizon, with government sources admitting it was “anyone’s guess” how either side would deal with the fallout.
A Labour party 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.”
Ahead of his talks with Mitsotakis on Monday, Starmer had signalled that he was open to a loan deal that would permit a significant portion of the sculptures to be repatriated in return for a rotating merry go-round of never-before-seen Greek antiquities being exhibited at the British Museum. / The Guardian