Rishi Sunak’s snub of his Greek counterpart over the Parthenon marbles raised fresh questions about Britain’s strained relationship with its European neighbors as the war of words between Athens and London intensified on Tuesday.
A meeting on Monday between Sunak and Kyriakos Mitsotakis was canceled as the Greek prime minister rejected assurances that he would not use the visit to the UK as a “public platform” to lobby for the return of the marbles to Athens, Downing Street said. The Greek side denied any assurances given.
The diplomatic spat erupted after an interview with the BBC on Sunday in which the Greek prime minister described the retention of sculptures in the British Museum as similar to the Mona Lisa being cut in half, the language used by the Greek government in the past.
After this, the meeting was canceled at short notice. A Sunak spokesman said he felt any talks would likely be “dominated” by the row above the sculptures.
“There are assurances that it will not be used as a public platform,” the spokesperson said. “We saw this happen during the previous visit of a previous prime minister in 2021. The assurances were not followed, and therefore the [British] the prime minister made the decision.”
However, as a Greek government spokesman accused Sunak of snubbing Mitsotakis to distract from political difficulties at home, the row threatens to damage the UK’s reputation in European circles after the efforts of fixing the Brexit mess.
European diplomats suggested that Sunak broke standard diplomatic convention by canceling talks with the Greek PM at the last minute and causing “offense” by offering him a meeting with his deputy, Oliver Dowden, instead.
A senior European official said: “If you want to be a global Britain, open to the world, based on international principles and diplomacy, you don’t just stop talking to friends because of an issue that exists within 200 years. Non-participation is a problem. “
They acknowledged that the Greek PM himself broke standard protocol by meeting the Labor leader, Keir Starmer, first. But they suggested that European capitals should note that “while one side participates, the other firmly closes the door”.
William Hague, a former foreign secretary who is sometimes considered a mentor to Sunak, also weighed in, describing the event as “not a good advertisement for diplomacy in general”.
He added that it would be “impossible” to reach an agreement on the Parthenon Marbles, but also told Times Radio that Mitsotakis could have “approached things better” and that Sunak should not have been canceled without a good deal. reason.
In the meantime, observers have emphasized the geopolitical importance of Greece, an EU member state close to the Middle East and the Black Sea that is crucial in trying to solve the Mediterranean migration crisis.
“I understand the game that is being played within Britain, which will probably hold an election in 2024… [Sunak] there are difficulties, as the polls make clear,” said a Greek government spokesman.
But when the row was started as an attempt to serve as a “dead cat” – a political gamble designed to distract from other bad news – Conservative MPs slowly came out in support of Sunak.
The Chair of the British Museum’s cross-party group, Tim Loughton, accused the Greek prime minister of “grandstanding”. However, a prominent rightwinger who recently put pressure on the prime minister over immigration policy said there was little interest in the Parthenon row on the backbenches.
Separately, Tory colleague Ed Vaizey, who heads the Parthenon Project, which campaigns to restore the Parthenon Sculptures in Athens, said Sunak’s decision to pull out of the meeting was a “free hit” for the party. Labor.
“Maybe there’s some good left in the Tories saying the Labor party is going to abandon all museums and hate our history, but for now it’s like this: I’m Keir Starmer, I’m glad to meet the world leader,” Lord. Vaizey told Times Radio. “Unfortunately, it’s touch and go when you book a meeting with the prime minister. Will he fulfill it?”
Greek officials who traveled with Mitsotakis to London strongly denied any suggestion that a pledge had been made to ignore the issue of the sculptures.
“We have many topics to discuss,” said Tasos Hatzivasiliou, a New Democracy MP, adding that the issue of the Parthenon sculptures is one of many Greek contingents planned to be raised in the talks. in Sunak. “The agenda is not an issue, nor will it be. But unfortunately what are the British doing? They, alone, are politicizing the whole event.
Sunak’s spokesman said Downing Street was concerned that the return of the Parthenon sculptures to Greece could open a “slippery slope” to the return of other contested artefacts.
The row comes as a proposal is under discussion between Greek officials and George Osborne – the chair of the British Museum – which would allow the sculptures to return to Athens in exchange for Greek treasures being displayed in London.
The 2,500-year-old Parthenon marbles were removed from Greece in circumstances that remain controversial at the behest of Lord Elgin, the then UK ambassador to the Ottoman court. The antiquities were sent to London between 1801 and 1804 and sold to the British Museum in 1816.