Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has become embroiled in a “petty” row about 5th century sculptures which has become so strained he called off a meeting with a European ally even though that country’s PM was already in London.
Mr Sunak scrapped a planned face-to-face on Tuesday with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis as a spat grew over a series of 2500-year-old friezes and statues in the British Museum which were taken from Athens in the early 19th Century.
Greece has consistently argued that the portions of the Parthenon Sculptures now in Britain – known as the Elgin Marbles – should be returned to be displayed at the Acropolis Museum.
Greek minister of labour Adonis Georgiadis said Mr Sunak’s cancelling of the meeting with Mr Mitsotakis was a “bad day” in British-Greek relations.
The antiquity argy-bargy has utterly overshadowed what should have been a relatively run of the mill visit of the Greek PM to another European capital.
The Ancient Greek Parthenon Sculptures, including friezes, statues and pediments, were all found at the Parthenon, the temple at the centre of the Acropolis in Athens. From 1801, a portion of them were removed and shipped back to Britain by Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin.
From almost the get go, the removal of the sculptures was controversial. However, Britain has maintained the artworks were not stolen but legitimately acquired.
Lord Elgin sold the objects to the British government which gave them to the British Museum to take care of.
The current diplomatic disaster began when, ahead of his meeting with Mr Sunak, Mr Mitsotakis did a round of interviews.
On BBC current affairs show Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, he said the sculptures had been “essentially stolen” and there should be a partnership drawn up with the British Museum so they could be displayed in Athens.
Mr Mitsotakis told the BBC that the current division of the sculptures – between London and Athens – was akin to slicing the Mona Lisa in half.
Following the interview, the office of Mr Sunak claimed that Greece had reneged on a promise not to bring up the Elgin Marbles.
“The Greek government provided reassurances that they would not use the visit as a public platform to relitigate long-settled matters relating to the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures,” as spokesman said.
As this agreement was “not adhered to” it was decided it would “not be productive” for the two prime ministers to meet face-to-face, reported the BBC.
The Greek government has denied the issue of the sculptures was out of bounds.
“Greece’s position on the issue of the Parthenon friezes is well known. I had hoped to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart,” Mr Mitsotakis said.
“I would like to express my displeasure at the British Prime Minister’s cancellation of our meeting just a few hours before it was due to take place”.
The Greek PM was given the opportunity to meet the UK’s deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden instead but he refused.
The UK government later said its relationship with Greece was “hugely important”.
Mr Sunak’s failure to meet the Greek PM has been slammed by the opposition Labour Party.
It said it was “petty” and “small minded” of Mr Sunak.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who did meet with Mr Mitsotakis, said if his party gained power it would be open to loaning some of the sculptures for displays in Athens.
“To pick a fight with a NATO ally for the sake of a headline shows just how weak Rishi Sunak is,” a Labour spokesman said.