The Greek Prime Minister has refused a meeting with British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden after it was offered to him instead of talks with Rishi Sunak, amid a growing row over the repatriation of the sculptures of the Parthenon.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the abrupt cancellation of a meeting Monday with Sunak in London, during which he had planned to raise the issue of the sculptures.
A cabinet minister said on Monday that a meeting with Dowden on Tuesday had been proposed to Mitsotakis but it had “not been possible” for it to happen.
“It’s a matter of regret. That offer has been made,” said Mark Harper, the transport minister, as the controversy overshadowed a morning show he had planned to use to talk about a new transatlantic flight using sustainable aviation fuel.
He added: “But the Government has made its position on the Elgin Marbles very clear that they should remain in the permanent collection of the British Museum. »
The sculptures were removed in circumstances that remain controversial at the request of Lord Elgin, then the British ambassador to the Ottoman court. The antiquities were shipped to London between 1801 and 1804 and sold to the British Museum in 1816.
Dowden has taken a tough stance on the sculptures, like other Tory MPs, saying in a debate last year: “It is important that we protect our institutions like the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum a barrage of demands for restitution. »
Mitsotakis, who reportedly went home rather than meet Dowden, said: “I express my displeasure that the British Prime Minister canceled our planned meeting hours before it was due to take place.
“Greece and Great Britain are united by traditionally strong bonds of friendship and the framework of our bilateral relations is exceptionally broad. Greece’s views of the Parthenon sculptures are well known. I hoped to have the opportunity to discuss this with my British counterpart as well as other international challenges: Gaza, Ukraine, the climate crisis, migration.
Ed Vaizey, a former Conservative culture minister and chairman of the Parthenon Project, which aims to reunite the Parthenon sculptures with those in the Acropolis Museum, said he did not know Sunak “felt so strongly” about the issue and suggested that the row was linked to the ongoing “culture wars” promoted by the conservative right.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that Sunak had put himself “at the forefront” of the controversy while George Osborne, chairman of the British Museum, was actively seeking a solution.
This was a reference to a draft deal being discussed between Greek officials and Osborne, which would allow the sculptures to return to Athens in exchange for Greek treasures on display in London.
Vaizey said Osborne had put “cards on the table” and Sunak’s position was “strange”, adding: “There has never been a better time for us to have a breakthrough, for this to have broken out. This is linked, to some extent, to the traditional culture wars: anyone who dares to say that British history is not perfect is considered, in one way or another, unpatriotic.”
Mitsotakis had already met Labor leader Keir Starmer, who described Downing Street’s apparent snub as “pathetic”.
The Greek government appears to believe that Starmer has assured it that if Labor wins an election next year he will not block a possible deal to return the Parthenon sculptures to Athens.