Rishi Sunak’s snub of his Greek counterpart over the Parthenon marbles raised fresh questions about Britain’s fraught relations with its European neighbours as a war of words between Athens and London escalated on Tuesday.
A meeting on Tuesday between Sunak and Kyriakos Mitsotakis was cancelled because the Greek prime minister reneged on assurances that he would not use a UK visit as a “public platform” to lobby for the return of the marbles to Athens, Downing Street said. The Greek side has denied any such assurances were given.
The diplomatic spat erupted after an interview with the BBC on Sunday in which Mitsotakis described the retention of the sculptures at the British Museum as akin to the Mona Lisa being cut in half, language which the Greek government has used before.
After this, the meeting was cancelled at short notice. A spokesperson for Sunak said he felt any talks were likely to be “dominated” by the row over the sculptures.
“There were assurances that it would not be used as a public platform,” the spokesperson said. “We saw this happen with a previous visit with a previous prime minister in 2021. The assurances were not adhered to, and so the [British] prime minister took the decision.”
However, as a spokesperson for the Greek government accused Sunak of snubbing Mitsotakis to distract from political difficulties at home, the row threatened to damage the UK’s reputation in European circles after efforts to repair rifts over Brexit.
European diplomats suggested Sunak had breached the usual diplomatic convention by cancelling talks with the Greek PM at the last minute and caused “offence” by offering him a meeting with his deputy, Oliver Dowden, instead.
One senior European official said: “If you want to be global Britain, open to the world, based on international values and diplomacy, you don’t just stop talking with friends because of an issue that has been around for 200 years. Not engaging is a problem.”
They acknowledged that the Greek PM had himself broken the usual protocol by meeting the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, first. But they suggested it would be noted in European capitals that “while one side was engaging, the other very firmly shut the door”.
There was also implicit criticism of Sunak from Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee. “I struggle to understand why the decision was made,” she said on Sky News.
“It does feel difficult to believe this was on the basis of the Elgin marbles … that a meeting was cancelled with a Nato ally, with whom we have an important relationship.”
William Hague, a former foreign secretary who is sometimes regarded as a mentor to Sunak, also weighed in, describing the affair as “not a great advert for diplomacy all round actually”.
He added that it “shouldn’t be impossible” to come to an agreement on the Parthenon marbles, but also told Times Radio that Mitsotakis could have “approached things a bit better” and that Sunak would not have cancelled without good reason.
Observers have meanwhile stressed the geopolitical importance of Greece, an EU member state near to the Middle East and the Black Sea which is pivotal to attempts to tackle the Mediterranean migration crisis.
“I understand the game that’s playing out internally in Britain, which will probably hold elections in 2024 … [Sunak] has difficulties, as is clear in the polls,” said a spokesperson for the Greek government.
But if the row was initiated as an attempt to serve as a “dead cat” – a political gambit designed to distract from other bad news – Conservative MPs were slow to come out in support of Sunak.
The chair of the cross-party group on the British Museum, Tim Loughton, had accused the Greek prime minister of “grandstanding”. However, a prominent rightwinger who has recently been heaping pressure on the prime minister over immigration policy said there was little interest in the Parthenon row on the backbenches.
Separately, the Tory peer Ed Vaizey, who chairs the Parthenon Project, which campaigns to return the Parthenon sculptures to Athens, said Sunak’s decision to pull out of the meeting was a “free hit” for Labour.
“There may be some residual benefit to the Tories saying the Labour party is going to empty all museums and hates our history, but at the moment it looks like: I’m Keir Starmer, I’m happy to meet world leaders,” Lord Vaizey told Times Radio.
Greek officials who travelled with Mitsotakis to London strongly denied any suggestion that a pledge had been made to ignore the issue of the sculptures.
“We have many topics to discuss,” said Tasos Hatzivasiliou, a New Democracy MP, adding that the Parthenon sculptures issue was one of many the Greek contingent had planned to raise in talks with Sunak. “The agenda was not a single-issue one, nor is it going to be. But unfortunately what are the British doing? They, alone, are politicising the whole affair.”
Sunak’s spokesperson said Downing Street was concerned the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Greece could open a “slippery slope” to the return of other contested artefacts.
A proposal is under discussion between Greek officials and George Osborne – the chair of the British Museum – that would allow the sculptures to return to Athens in exchange for Greek treasures being displayed in London.
The 2,500-year-old Parthenon marbles were removed from Greece in circumstances that remain controversial at the behest of Lord Elgin, then the UK’s ambassador to the Ottoman court. The antiquities were shipped to London between 1801 and 1804 and sold to the British Museum in 1816.