Greek officials said Tuesday that they will continue talks with the British Museum about bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak canceling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis planned to raise Greece’s decades-old demand for the return of the ancient sculptures when he met Sunak at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. The two center-right leaders were also slated to talk about migration, climate change and the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.
Sunak called off the meeting hours before it was due to take place, sparking a diplomatic row between the two European allies. Mitsotakis was instead offered a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, which he declined.
British officials gave no reason for the cancellation, but they were annoyed that Mitsotakis had appeared on British television Sunday and compared the removal of the sculptures from Athens to cutting the Mona Lisa in half.
Dimitris Tsiodras, head of the Greek prime minister’s press office, said Mitostakis was angry at the “British misstep.”
“Of course he was angry … Look, Greece is a proud country. It has a long history. Mitsotakis represents that country,” Tsiodras told private network Mega television.
Greek left-wing opposition leader Stefanos Kasselakis also said Sunak’s action was unacceptable.
“The case of the Parthenon Sculptures is an issue that goes beyond the Greek Prime Minister as an individual and beyond party differences,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It is a national issue that concerns the history of an entire people. And it is a moral issue concerning the shameless theft of cultural wealth from its natural setting.”
Athens has long demanded the return of sculptures that were removed from Greece by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. Part of friezes that adorned the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, the “Elgin Marbles” – as they are known in Britain – have been displayed at the British Museum in London for more than two centuries. The remainder of the friezes are in a purpose-built museum in Athens.
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.
Earlier this year, museum chairman George Osborne – Treasury chief in a previous Conservative UK government – said the discussions had been “constructive.”
Tsiodras said Tuesday that discussions “are ongoing with the British Museum for the return – I should say the reunification – of the marbles to Athens.”
“I don’t think the effort stops there,” he said. “Clearly, there are domestic reasons and 2024 is an election year and [Sunak] is quite behind in the polls… but the discussion with the British Museum is ongoing.”
Sunak’s government appears to have hardened its position, however.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said that “the government set out its position about the Elgin Marbles very clearly, which is they should stay as part of the permanent collection of the British Museum.”