Rishi Sunak has snubbed talks with the Greek prime minister over his demand for the return of the Elgin Marbles.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is visiting the UK, said he would be raising the issue directly with Mr Sunak during talks this week. But the meeting was never confirmed by Downing Street, and government sources last night said it would now not go ahead.
A senior Tory source said Mr Sunak was clear that the priceless sculptures belong in the British Museum – and criticised Sir Keir Starmer after he indicated last week that Labour would not ‘stand in the way’ of their return to Greece.
‘There’s no point the PM having the meeting if this is what it is about,’ the source said.
‘Our position on this 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.’
Athens has long demanded the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, which were removed from Greece by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Rishi Sunak has snubbed talks with the Greek prime minister over his demand for the return of the Elgin Marbles
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is visiting the UK, said he would be raising the issue directly with Mr Sunak during talks this week. But government sources said it would now not go ahead
Mr Mitsotakis said on Sunday he planned to raise the issue during meetings with Mr Sunak and Sir Keir during his visit to London.
He told the BBC that he would ‘meet both Keir Starmer and of course the Prime Minister’ to discuss the return of sculptures which he said were ‘essentially stolen’.
Mr Mitsotakis said British possession of the Marbles was a form of cultural vandalism akin to ‘cutting the Mona Lisa in half’.
Downing Street yesterday responded: ‘Obviously that’s not something we would agree with.
‘These were legally acquired at the time, they’re legally owned by the trustees of the museum. We support that position and there’s no plan to change the law which governs it.’
A Government source said Mr Mitsotakis would be offered a meeting with another minister but would not now see the PM.
However, the Greek PM did discuss the issue with Sir Keir last night. A Labour source insisted the issue was not the ‘focal point’ of the meeting, adding: ‘They talked about the importance of close cooperation in relation to wider European security, migration and climate action and the important cultural links between both countries.’
Athens has long demanded the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, which were removed from Greece by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire
The Greek PM did discuss the issue with Sir Keir last night. A Labour source insisted the issue was not the ‘focal point’ of the meeting
British Museum chairman George Osborne, the 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 sculptures would be sent to Athens.
Labour sources said that Sir Keir, whose Holborn and St Pancras constituency is home to the British Museum, would not ‘stand in the way’ of a loan deal.
A Labour spokesperson said: ‘Strong cultural and historical partnerships between countries are important to ensure the British Museum, and other UK cultural institutions, can maintain their world leading status.
‘The next Labour Government will hear the case from the British Museum and its chair on any proposed changes to the Heritage Act as it stands. We’ve no current plans to change it.’
Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he was ‘disappointed’ that Rishi Sunak cancelled their planned meeting.
In a statement, a spokesman said: ‘The prime minister is disappointed that Prime Minister Sunak cancelled their bilateral meeting at the 11th hour today.
‘Greece and Britain have a very deep history of friendship and co-operation, and the Greek government is extremely surprised by this decision.
‘The prime minister was looking forward to discussing a range of topics of mutual interest including the Israel/Gaza conflict, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, climate change, as well as common challenges such as migration, and of course the Parthenon Sculptures.’