The Greek prime minister has been accused of using the Elgin Marbles for his own domestic political goals amid a furious diplomatic row.
Rishi Sunak pulled out of talks with Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the last minute after the premier reneged on an agreement not to let the ownership dispute dominate his visit.
The Prime Minister is against returning the friezes to Athens, fearing a “slippery slope” that could lead to other artefacts being removed from British museums.
Conservative MP Tim Loughton, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the British Museum, said: “You do not trade away cultural treasures for political expedience and our Prime Minister was right not to allow his Greek counterpart shamelessly to use them for his own domestic political agendas.”
“That would be the worst possible reason for tearing away the sculptures from the home where they have been safely and widely appreciated for over 200 years.”
He also accused Mr Mitsotakis of “grandstanding and trying to make a political issue out of one of the world’s greatest treasures”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer met the Greek PM on Monday after his aides said he would not stand in the way of a loan deal.
Conservative MP Sir Michael Fabricant said: “The Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here. It is reckless for any British politician, like Starmer, to suggest that this is subject to negotiation. It’s not just the marbles. What else would be repatriated from UK museums?”
Greece has long demanded the return of the historic works, acquired by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century as British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
No10 said it had been keen to avoid a repeat of Mr Mitsotakis’s visit to the UK in 2021, when he used the trip as a “public platform” to press for the marbles’ return by claiming the 17 figures “belong in the Acropolis Museum”.
Ahead of the visit, Downing Street confirmed it “sought assurances” that similar pronouncements would not be made. But on Sunday Mr Mitsotakis described the current situation as being akin to the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.
No10 said Mr Sunak decided it would “not be productive” to go ahead with yesterday’s talks.
He added: “For far too long, constant attempts to relitigate in public the long settled issue of the ownership of the marbles has cast a shadow over an otherwise productive relationship with Greece and that those conversations are best had in private. Those were the assurances that were provided to us in advance of this meeting. Those assurances were not adhered to and you saw the subsequent action taken.”
British Museum chairman George Osborne, an ex-chancellor, is exploring how the marbles could be displayed in Greece, possibly involving a loan deal. But No10 made clear Mr Sunak, who hosted the Cabinet yesterday, sees the museum as the rightful place for them.
Rishi Sunak has learned from history well.
His refusal to see the Greek PM yesterday to stop him hijacking their meeting with demands to surrender the Elgin Marbles shows he learned an important lesson: beware of Greeks seeking gifts.
He is right to do so. The Greeks are in no doubt he won’t cave into their lobbying campaign. Greece is trying to capitalise on the fashionable “decolonisation” campaign with its argument that the Marbles were stolen from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin. He had permission from the Ottomans – rulers of Greece at the time – to save the treasures from the site which they had been using as an ammunition dump.
They were acquired lawfully, as agreed by a House of Commons Select Committee, and have been enjoyed by millions in the British Museum. The institution has explored whether they could be loaned temporarily to Athens for other priceless artefacts.
But the lack of agreement so far highlights an inconvenient truth: could Greece be trusted to allow the Marbles back? Historian Sir Noel Malcolm has raised the prospect of Greek nationalists inspiring their government to take legal action and keep them in Athens. That might sound cynical, but Kyriakos Mitsotakis did little to allay such fears in his pitch to the BBC: “This is not in my mind an ownership question, this is a reunification argument.”
That is not the language of someone who will be happy with just a temporary exchange of artefacts. It suggests the Greeks will not rest until they see every single one of the Marbles back. If only they heeded the words of Dame Mary Beard. The doyenne of Classicists once wrote that “after 200 years the Elgin Marbles have a history that roots them in the British Museum as well as in Athens, and that history cannot be unwritten”.
That is why Sunak is right to dismiss attempts to revive ancient grievances as he keeps the UK and Greece focused on the future.
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