Diplomatic dispute over Greek marbles as Rishi Sunak cancel meeting with Kyriakos Mitsotakis

A diplomatic spat has erupted between Greece and Britain after the UK cancelled a planned meeting of their prime ministers, prompting the Greek premier to accuse his British counterpart of trying to avoid discussing the contested Parthenon Marbles.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is visiting London and had been expected to meet British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. 

He was due to raise Greece’s decades-old demand for the return of the ancient sculptures from the British Museum, among other issues.

However late on Monday evening, Mitsotakis issued a statement to “express my annoyance at the fact that the British prime minister has cancelled our planned meeting a few hours before it was due to take place.”

“Greece and Britain are linked by traditional bonds of friendship, and the scope of our bilateral relations is very broad,” Mitsotakis said. 

“Greece’s positions on the matter of the Parthenon Sculptures are well known. I had hoped to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart, together with the current major international challenges: Gaza, Ukraine, climate change and immigration. 

“Whoever believes that his positions are well-founded and just is never afraid of engaging in a debate.”

Britain confirmed the two leaders would not meet and said Mitsotakis would hold talks with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead. The BBC reports that the Greek leader had declined the invitation.

“The UK-Greece relationship is hugely important,” Sunak’s office said in a statement that notably failed to mention the disputed sculptures. “From our work together in NATO, to tackling shared challenges like illegal migration, to joint efforts to resolve the crisis in the Middle East and war in Ukraine.

“The deputy prime minister was available to meet with the Greek PM to discuss these important issues.”

What’s the history behind the disputed sculptures?

Athens has long demanded the return of sculptures that were removed from Greece by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. The sculptures, which originally adorned the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, have been displayed at the British Museum in London for more than two centuries.

About half the surviving marble works are in London, and the rest in a purpose-built museum under the Acropolis in Athens. Appearing on British television Sunday, Mitsotakis compared the separation of the sculptures to cutting the Mona Lisa in half – a remark that annoyed the British government.

The British Museum is banned by law from giving the sculptures back to Greece, but its leaders have held talks with Greek officials about a compromise, such as a long-term loan.

But Sunak’s spokesman took a tough line Monday, saying the UK government had “no plans to change our approach, and certainly we think that the (British) museum is the right place” for the marbles.

“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,” said spokesman Max Blain.

“We have cared for the marbles for generations and our position is we want that to continue.”

Mitsotakis met Monday with UK opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, whose party leads Sunak’s governing Conservatives in opinion polls.

After Sunak’s meeting with the Greek leader was called off Labour said: “If the prime minister isn’t able to meet with a European ally with whom Britain has important economic ties, this is further proof he isn’t able to provide the serious economic leadership our country requires.

“Keir Starmer’s Labour Party stands ready.”

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