Elgin Marbles row escalates as Greek PM accuses Sunak of running scared

Kyriakos Mitsotakis advocates for ‘reunification’ of Elgin Marbles

Greece’s Prime Minister has accused UK counterpart Rishi Sunak of running scared after the cancellation of a meeting aimed at discussing the future of the Elgin Marbles in a significant escalation of the row.

A spokesman said his country would continue to exert diplomatic pressure in a bid to regain the historic artefacts, taken from Athens by diplomat Lord Elgin in the 19th century.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis had been hoping to meet the British Prime Minister during his trip to London – and a source on the Greek side said he and his team had been left “baffled, surprised and not a little bit annoyed” at an apparent sudden cancellation, particularly when preventing migrant sea crossings – one of Mr Sunak’s top five priorities – was high on the agenda.

Downing Street suggested a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden had been offered instead – something Mr Mitsotakis is understood to have rejected.

Posting on X, formerly Twitter, Mr Mitsotakis subsequently said: “I express my annoyance that the British prime minister cancelled our planned meeting just hours before it was due to take place.

“Anyone who believes in the rightness and justice of his positions is never afraid of confronting arguments.”

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A statement issued by Mr Mitsotakis’s 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.”

The UK Government cancelled the meeting after Mr Mitsotakis had used an interview ahead of the anticipated talks to push for the return of the Marbles, saying the current situation was like the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.

Athens has long demanded the return of the historic works, also known as 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.

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Downing Street, which pushed back against the Greek leader’s Mona Lisa comparison, had indicated that Mr Sunak would reject pleas for the ancient Greek artefacts, on display at the British Museum in London, to be handed back.

Asked about the Greek prime minister’s claims of a last-minute cancellation, a No 10 spokeswoman would only say that the “UK-Greece relationship is hugely important”.

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman stressed Mr Sunak’s support for the law that prevents the marbles from being permanently returned and suggested he would not be in favour of any loan arrangement.

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.

Asked about such an agreement, Mr Sunak’s spokesman told reporters: “We have no plans to change our approach and certainly we think that the museum is the right place for them.

“I haven’t asked him specifically about short-term or new ideas that have been put forward, but I think he’s been fairly robust on his position.”

The official also said the Government had “no plans” to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

Mr Mitsotakis also met with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during his visit to the UK capital.

Sir Keir had indicated he would tell the Greek premier that a Labour government would not change the law, but that he would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable to the museum and the Greek government.

Labour has said that, if Mr Sunak had scrapped the talks because of controversy over the Elgin Marbles, then it showed he “isn’t able to provide the serious economic leadership our country requires”.

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