Parthenon marbles row derails talks between UK’s Sunak, Greece’s Mitsotakis

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Greek Prime Minister Sunak expressed his ‘disappointment’ at the break-up of the meeting, saying he had canceled talks on the disputed marbles.

Diplomatic sparks are flying after Britain’s prime minister abruptly canceled a meeting with his Greek counterpart to discuss long-disputed heritage.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was scheduled to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Monday, who plans to raise the status of the Elgin Marbles, a 2,500-year-old Greek sculpture that Athens wants Britain to return.

Greece asserts that the marbles taken from the Parthenon by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century were stolen – a claim denied by Britain.

The issue has been a source of contention between the countries for decades.

Mitsotakis, in a statement, said he was “pleased” that the British prime minister had sidelined the issue and canceled their meeting at the last minute.

“The Greek position in the matter of the Parthenon friezes is well known. I was hoping to get a chance to discuss it with my British counterpart,” lamented Mitsotakis.

He added, “Those who believe in the correctness and validity of their position are never afraid to face arguments.”

Mitsukis reportedly turned down a British offer to meet with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead.

A Downing Street spokesman responded to Mitsotakis’ statement, saying “the UK-Greece relationship is very important”, citing joint work in NATO and “combating common challenges such as illegal immigration” and the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

“The Deputy Prime Minister attended a meeting with the Greek Prime Minister to discuss these important issues,” the spokesman added, without mentioning the marble issue.

Examples of the Parthenon sculptures, sometimes referred to in England as the Elgin Marbles, are on display at the British Museum in London, Britain. [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

Decades of debate

The sculptures were taken from the Parthenon Temple on the Greek Acropolis in the early 19th century by the British diplomat Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin.

Britain claims to have legitimate access to the Scriptures.

Greek news agency Anna, citing Greek government sources, reported that the British prime minister was upset by his Greek counterpart’s comments to the BBC on Sunday.

In his comments, Mitsotakis compared the collection being held at the British Museum to a painting of the Mona Lisa cut in half.

A source in Britain’s ruling Conservatives told the broadcaster on Monday: “This meeting has become impossible to continue following the comments made earlier about the Elgin marbles.”

The British government has always refused to give away ownership of the marble, which comprises half of the 160-metre (525 ft) frieze that adorns the Parthenon.

However, Athens has recently been pushing for a deal that would return the sculptures to some sort of loan arrangement.

The Financial Times reported last week that British opposition leader Keir Starmer would not block a “mutually acceptable” loan deal for the sculptures. A meeting between Mitsotakis and Starmer went ahead as planned on Monday.

But a spokesman for Sunac said on Monday that the UK government had “no plans to change our approach and we certainly intend to.” [British] A museum is the right place for marbles.

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