British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak triggered a diplomatic spat with Greece over the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles by canceling at the last-minute a one-on-one in London.
“I express my annoyance for the fact that the British Prime Minister canceled our scheduled meeting just hours before it was due to take place,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a Monday-night statement.
Their appointment had been set for midday yesterday.
It became impossible for the meeting between the two leaders to go ahead on account of Mitsotakis’ commentary regarding the historical antiquities, said one senior Conservative Party source, who asked to remain anonymous when discussing private matters.
“If I told you that you would cut the Mona Lisa in half, and you will have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum, do you think your viewers would appreciate the beauty of the painting?” Mitsotakis had said on the BBC on Sunday, by way of reference to the sculptures’ removal from Athens’ acropolis, where others like them still stand.
The sculptures are housed in London’s British Museum and both countries claim them as their own. In recent years the sides had been moving closer to resolving the centuries-long feud by brokering an arrangement whereby they could be seen in Athens, from where they were taken by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century.
Mitsotakis insisted in his statement that what he told the press did not contain anything that deviated from his previous stance.
“Greece’s positions on the issue of the Parthenon sculptures are well known,” he said. “I was hoping to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart as well, along with the major challenges of the international situation: Gaza, Ukraine, Climate crisis, migration.”
The Greeks received a call at about 6pm just as Mitsotakis’ meeting with UK opposition-party leader Keir Starmer was ending, said one person familiar with how the cancelation played out.
The Financial Times earlier reported that Starmer was privately not prepared to change the law concerning the sculptures, but would not stand in the way of a loan deal if one mutually acceptable to both the British Museum and the Greek government could be agreed.
Sunak trails the Labour leader by about 20 percentage points in polls ahead of an election expected next year. Starmer and Mitsotakis discussed the marbles during their meeting and both sides presented their arguments, one person said.
Mitsotakis’ comments were no different than what he has said in the past and reflect the Greeks’ fixed positions on the issue, a senior Greek official said, adding that in any case the matter does not concern the British government, but the British Museum.
Josh Lambkin from the Parthenon Project, which is working with the British Museum and Acropolis Museum in an effort to broker a deal, criticized Sunak’s decision.
“It’s a shame the British prime minister feels he can’t discuss the subject of the Elgin Marbles with the Greek prime minister, especially given how much both countries stand to gain from a sensible resolution on this matter,” he said.
The cancelation also risks a relationship that might have helped Sunak improve cooperation among European nations coping with a surge of asylum seekers.?
“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,” a Labour Party spokesperson said.
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