Allies of the Greek premier have pushed back against claims that he broke an agreement not to use a UK visit as a “public platform” to demand the Elgin Marbles’ return.
Rishi Sunak scrapped face-to-face talks planned for Tuesday with Greek leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis after feeling he had rowed back on “reassurances” that he would avoid an open debate about the ownership of the ancient artefacts.
Downing Street said the Prime Minister feared any bilateral meeting in London was likely to be “dominated” by the marbles row after Mr Mitsotakis gave an interview on Sunday pressing for them to be returned by the British Museum to Athens.
The PA news agency understands that the Greek side disagrees with No 10’s characterisation of the situation as the diplomatic storm refused to abate.
It is our view that, for far too long, constant attempts to relitigate in public the long settled issue of the ownership of the marbles has cast a shadow over an otherwise productive relationship with Greece— Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's official spokesman
Athens’ view is that the idea that Mr Mitsotakis would come to London and not respond to a question about the marbles, which are also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, in a BBC interview was nonsense.
It is understood the Greek prime minister plans to continue to raise the issue every time he comes to the UK, but he has never had the opportunity to discuss it in person with Mr Sunak.
Asked about Athens’ position on the interview, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Sunday’s comments had put the marbles “front and centre of the debate”.
“Obviously it is up to the Greek government the media they choose to do but, when they have provided reassurances that they will not seek to publicise this, we don’t think those assurances were adhered to,” he added.
Greece has long demanded the return of the historic works, which were removed from the Acropolis of Athens by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
No 10 said it had been keen to avoid a repeat of Mr Mitsotakis’s visit to the UK in 2021, when the Government felt he had used the trip as a “public platform” to press for the marbles’ return.
Mr Mitsotakis, ahead of that occasion two years ago when Boris Johnson was prime minister, had said the 17 figures “belong in the Acropolis Museum”.
Ahead of this week’s visit, Downing Street confirmed it “sought assurances” that similar public pronouncements would not be made.
But in an interview on Sunday, Mr Mitsotakis described the current situation as being akin to the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.
The comments appear to have annoyed No 10, with the Prime Minister’s spokesman telling reporters that Mr Sunak decided it would “not be productive” to go ahead with talks that had been scheduled for Tuesday.
The spokesman said: “It is our view that, for far too long, constant attempts to relitigate in public the long settled issue of the ownership of the marbles has cast a shadow over an otherwise productive relationship with Greece and that those conversations are best had in private.
“Those were the assurances that were provided to us in advance of this meeting.
“Those assurances were not adhered to and you saw the subsequent action that was taken.”
No 10 said it offered talks with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead, but that goes against the usual protocol which would normally mean a visiting prime minister would meet Mr Sunak, rather than a more junior minister.
Greek minister Adonis Georgiadis said Mr Sunak had made a “bad choice” in scrapping the bilateral meeting.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One: “It was a mistake. It was a bad day for our relationship. I hope that we will find a way out soon.”
Mr Georgiadis said Mr Mitsotakis, in his interview arguing for the return of the marbles, had expressed the view of the Greek people.
“Elgin stole the marbles, that is it,” he added.
In a strongly-worded statement on Monday, a spokesman for the Greek prime minister’s office said Mr Mitsotakis was “disappointed” and “extremely surprised” that his British counterpart had cancelled their meeting “at the 11th hour”.
A Greek source said they were particularly confused by Mr Sunak’s decision given that preventing migrant sea crossings — one of Mr Sunak’s top five priorities — was high on the agenda.
Along with discussing the sculptures, the Greek government said it had been hoping to also broach efforts to tackle climate change and challenges such as the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.
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.
But Downing Street made clear that Mr Sunak continues to see the museum as the rightful place for them.
Ministers do not have plans to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection, No 10 confirmed this week.
Labour criticised Mr Sunak’s decision to cancel his meeting with his Greek counterpart.
A party spokesman said: “To pick a fight with a Nato ally for the sake of a headline shows just how weak Rishi Sunak is.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer met Mr Mitsotakis on Monday before he opted to cut his trip short.
A readout of their talks did not mention the marbles but Sir Keir had indicated that, while he would tell the Greek premier a Labour government would not change the law, he would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable.