Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelled Tuesday’s meeting with his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, after his office said the two sides had previously agreed that it should not be used as a public platform “to relitigate long, long settled matters,” a reference to ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures.
A Greek government official speaking on condition of anonymity said that there was no such agreement. Earlier a Greek government spokesman called the cancellation unprecedented and disrespectful.
“It’s simply the case that if assurances are given and they’re not adhered to, that there are consequences for that,” Sunak’s spokesman told reporters.
Greece has repeatedly asked the British Museum to permanently return the 2,500-year-old sculptures that British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon temple in the early 19th century when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
About half the surviving marble works are in London, and the rest in a museum under the Acropolis in Athens.
Appearing on the BBC over the weekend, Mitsotakis compared the separation of the sculptures to cutting the Mona Lisa in half, a characterisation rejected by the British government.
Both Britain and Greece said that the dispute jeopardised the opportunity to discuss global issues, including the wars in Gaza and Ukraine, migration and the climate crisis.
However, Greek government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis later said his country did not want to escalate the row or let it spoil normally good relations between the countries.
Greek officials said that they will continue talks with the British Museum about bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite Sunak canceling the meeting with Mitsotakis.