Greek officials angry and puzzled after UK's Sunak scraps leaders' meeting over Parthenon Marbles

FILE - Women stand by a marble statue of a naked youth thought to represent Greek god Dionysos, center, from the east pediment of the Parthenon, on display during a media photo opportunity to promote a forthcoming exhibition on the human body in ancient Greek art at the British Museum in London, on Jan. 8, 2015. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)


LONDON (AP) — Greek officials said Tuesday that they will continue talks with the British Museum about bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abruptly canceling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.

But the U.K. government said ownership of the marbles is “settled” — and they’re British.

A diplomatic row erupted between the two European allies after Sunak called off a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hours before it was due to take place.

Mitsotakis had planned to raise Greece’s decades-old demand for the return of the ancient sculptures when he met Sunak at 10 Downing St. on Tuesday. The two center-right leaders were also slated to talk about migration, climate change and the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.

Mitsotakis was instead offered a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, which he declined.

British officials were annoyed that Mitsotakis had appeared on British television Sunday and compared the removal of the sculptures from Athens to cutting the Mona Lisa in half.

Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, said Mitsotakis had reneged on a promise not to talk publicly about the marbles during his three-day visit to Britain.

“The Greek government provided reassurances that they would not use the visit as a public platform to relitigate long-settled matters” about the marbles, he said. “Given those assurances were not adhered to, the prime minister decided it would not be productive” to have the meeting.

Dimitris Tsiodras, head of the Greek prime minister’s press office, said Mitostakis was angry at the “British misstep.”

“Of course he was angry … Look, Greece is a proud country. It has a long history. Mitsotakis represents that country,” Tsiodras told private network Mega television.

Greek left-wing opposition leader Stefanos Kasselakis also said Sunak’s action was unacceptable.

“The case of the Parthenon Sculptures is an issue that goes beyond the Greek Prime Minister as an individual and beyond party differences,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It is a national issue that concerns the history of an entire people. And it is a moral issue concerning the shameless theft of cultural wealth from its natural setting.”

Athens has long demanded the return of sculptures that were removed from Greece by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. Part of friezes that adorned the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, the Elgin Marbles – as they are known in Britain — have been displayed at the British Museum in London for more than two centuries. The remainder of the friezes are in a purpose-built museum in Athens.

The British Museum is banned by law from giving the sculptures back to Greece, but its leaders have held talks with Greek officials about a compromise, such as a long-term loan.

Earlier this year, museum chairman George Osborne — Treasury chief in a previous Conservative U.K. government — said the discussions had been “constructive.”

Tsiodras said Tuesday that discussions “are ongoing with the British Museum for the return – I should say the reunification – of the marbles to Athens.”

“I don’t think the effort stops there,” he said. “Clearly, there are domestic reasons and 2024 is an election year and (Sunak) is quite behind in the polls… but the discussion with the British Museum is ongoing.”

Sunak’s government appears to have hardened its position, however.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said that “the government set out its position about the Elgin Marbles very clearly, which is they should stay as part of the permanent collection of the British Museum.”

And Blain said that “a loan cannot happen without the Greeks accepting that the British Museum are the legal owners” of the antiquities.


Gatopoulos reported from Athens, Greece.