Rishi Sunak continues to be embroiled in a deepening row with Athens after he cancelled a meeting with the Greek prime minister at the “eleventh hour” over the Elgin Marbles.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is visiting Britain, has said he was “disappointed” that the planned bilateral meeting had fallen through. The prime minister had offered his deputy, Oliver Dowden, instead.
Downing Street insisted the talks had only been agreed on the basis the Greeks would not use the trip as a “public platform” to lobby for the return of the ancient artefacts, which are on display at the British Museum. The Greek side has denied any such assurances were given.
The spat came after Mitsotakis described the retention of the 2,500 years old sculptures at the British Museum as akin to the Mona Lisa being cut in half in an interview with the BBC on Sunday.
The sculptures are seen as symbols of freedom in Greece, where they are known as the Parthenon Marbles. In the early 19th century, British diplomat Lord Elgin — at the time ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled Greece — removed the sculptures from the Parthenon temple.
Peer and former culture minister Ed Vaizey told Politico: “It just strikes me as very odd to kind of throw your toys out of the pram because somebody has behaved badly”.
He added: “You should rise above it.”
House of Commons culture select committee chair said the “The UK-Greek relationship is very important” and that the row “feels like a bit of a diplomatic fail to me.”
There was also criticism of the prime minister from the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee Alicia Kearns. “I struggle to understand why the decision was made”, she told Sky News.
“It does feel difficult to believe this was on the basis of the Elgin marbles … that a meeting was cancelled with a Nato ally, with whom we have an important relationship.”
William Hague, a former foreign secretary who is thought to be a close ally and mentor of the prime minister, told Times Radio the row is “not a great advert for diplomacy all round actually”.
However, he also said that Mitsotakis could have “approached things a bit better” and that Sunak would not have cancelled without good reason.
Speaking this morning, Steve Barclay, the environment secretary, insisted the UK has “very good relations” with Greece, despite the deepening row.
He told Sky News: “I think the British Museum is a jewel in the crown, it’s something that people from across the world come and enjoy and we’re very proud of.
“I don’t think anyone wants to relitigate something that has been settled for a long time. We have very good relations with the Greek government but in terms of the Elgin Marbles they are part of the British Museum and that’s something that’s been a constant for many decades.
“I don’t think anyone sees any need for that to change.”
Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.