Rishi Sunak vs Greek PM: Elgin Marbles row explained

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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s cancellation of a meeting with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis during his visit to the UK on Tuesday comes amid controversy over the restoration of the Elgin Marbles.

A worker looks at examples of the Parthenon sculptures in the UK, sometimes referred to as Elgin marble. (Reuters)

Among the controversial historical objects brought to England by the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century were the ancient Greek sculptures of the Parthenon in Athens – which gave them their English name.

The Parthenon sculptures are now part of the British Museum collection, while the Greeks were asked to complete their series at the Acropolis Museum in Athens.

The recent spat is a reminder of India’s desire for the Koh-i-Noor diamond and other historical artifacts taken from India during the colonial era. Very recently, the Government of Maharashtra has signed an MoU with the Victoria and Albert Museum. As part of Maharashtra’s 350th Chhatrapati Shivaji coronation celebrations, it was organized for Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS).

The UK-Greece row erupted after Downing Street said an agreement had been reached between Sunak and Mitsotakis that the issue would not be raised during any bilateral talks, which the Greeks denied.

On Sunday, Greece’s prime minister told the BBC that having some of the Parthenon’s treasures in London and others in Athens would be like cutting the ‘Mona Lisa’ in half.

Mitsotakis told reporters on Monday evening that he was “deeply saddened” by the sudden cancellation of his scheduled meeting with Sunak on Tuesday afternoon, which appeared to have sparked the row.

“People who strongly believe in the correctness and justice of their position will not hesitate to engage in constructive debate and debate,” said the Greek Prime Minister.

A government spokesman later told SKAI TV: “The British attitude does not show any respect for the Prime Minister or our country.”

He added that while canceling a meeting was not common, the Greek government did not want to “inflame the issue with a country with which we have good relations”.

The Greek leader was offered a meeting with UK Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, whose team declined, opting instead to back out. The row comes from the chairman of the British Museum, with the background of former chancellor George Osborne, who has recently shown he is open to lending Greek sculptures.

Many in the ruling Conservative Party oppose such a proposal, but the government’s official position is that it is a matter for the museum. Sunak seems to be resolutely positioning himself on that argument against any kind of return of treasure as he prepares for next year’s general elections.

The opposition Labor Party has expressed dismay at the war with a NATO ally.

“It shows how weak Rishi Sunak is to pick a fight with a NATO ally for headlines. He should have been talking about the economy, immigration, the Middle East, that’s what the country expects from a leader but Rishi Sunak is not,” a Labor spokesman told the BBC.

The opposition party, which currently leads the polls, says its position will not stand in the way of a future Labor government if the British Museum and the Greek government reach a loan deal.

In the year The British Museum Act of 1963, which prevents the world-renowned museum from lending objects from its collection, does not require a change in the law for the loan of its artefacts, except in very limited circumstances.

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