- By Henry Zeffman, Chief Political Correspondent, Harrison Jones and Chris Mason, Political Editor
- BBC News
Downing Street believed it had received assurances from the Greek government that its Prime Minister would not raise the subject of the Parthenon sculptures during his visit to the UK.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the BBC on Sunday that having some of the treasures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, in London and others in Athens was like cutting the Mona Lisa in two.
No 10 then canceled Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s meeting with Mr Mitsotakis.
Labor called the row “pathetic”.
The sculptures are a collection of ancient Greek treasures from the Parthenon that were taken and brought to the United Kingdom by the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. They are now in the British Museum.
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.
Professor Irene Stamatoudi, a former member of the Greek culture minister’s advisory committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that Greece’s position was “perfectly clear and has remained unchanged” for years.
Saying that the British Prime Minister looked “no better than Lord Elgin”, she continued: “Rishi Sunak’s behavior is not even close to that of a leader of a great nation with whom the Greece cooperates on a number of issues and considers it a friend.”
Ms Stamatoudi said she did not know if there was an agreement between the two governments that the issue would not be raised during the visit to London.
But she added: “It is not possible that the prime minister of the state will not answer questions about the Parthenon marbles.”
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. »
But Mr Mitsotakis told reporters on Monday evening that he was “deeply disappointed by the abrupt cancellation” of the meeting, which was scheduled for midday on Tuesday.
“Those who firmly believe in the validity and justice of their positions never hesitate to engage in constructive argument and debate,” he said.
Sources with knowledge of the Greek government’s state of mind suggested it was both “baffled” and “annoyed”.
In his interview on Sunday on the BBC with Laura Kuenssberg the day before, the Greek Prime Minister had requested the return of the sculptures.
He said the sculptures had been “essentially stolen” but called for a partnership with the British Museum so people could “enjoy” the works “in their original settings”.
During his visit to the UK, Mr Mitsotakis met Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer and will return to Greece on Tuesday after further planned meetings.
A wider debate is underway about the place of museums and their collections in a postcolonial world, with Mr Sunak appearing to position himself decisively on one side of this argument.
There could also be a difference with Sir Keir Starmer’s Labor Party on this issue.
A party spokesperson told the BBC: “Fighting with a NATO ally for headlines shows how weak Rishi Sunak is.
“He should have talked about the economy, immigration, the Middle East. That’s what the country expects from a leader, but Rishi Sunak is not a leader.”
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 could happen regardless of the British prime minister’s position.
A Labor source said the party’s position was long-standing – a Labor government would not change the law to allow the sculptures to be permanently moved – and described Mr Sunak’s behavior as “pathetic”.
British Museum chairman George Osborne, who served as Conservative chancellor from 2010 to 2016, previously said he was seeking “some sort of arrangement that would allow some of the sculptures to spend part of their time in Greece “.
Speaking to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee last month, Mr Osborne said any deal would require “things from Greece to arrive here” for the first time.
It is believed that a decision will be made at least months away.
The Parthenon marbles
- Friezes and pediment figures that decorated the Parthenon temple in Athens, built between 447 and 432 BC.
- Many were kidnapped by agents of the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and eventually sold to the British Museum.
- 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.