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Rishi Sunak, the UK prime minister, has delivered a snub to his Greek counterpart in a dispute over the future of the so-called Elgin Marbles, amid signs the fate of the 2,500-year-old carvings is again about to become a hot British political issue.
Downing Street on Monday night told Kyriakos Mitsotakis that Sunak would no longer meet him in Number 10 on Tuesday — an event that had already been announced by the Greek prime minister’s office.
A senior Conservative source said the meeting was cancelled because of “commentary” ahead of the event. Mitsotakis said having the frieze in London was like having the Mona Lisa “cut in half”.
Mitsotakis, who has publicly called for the return of the entire frieze to Athens since first taking office five years ago, was stunned by the snub. Sunak suggested he might want to meet Oliver Dowden, the UK deputy prime minister, instead.
“I express my dismay that the British prime minister cancelled our scheduled meeting just hours before it was due to take place,” the Greek leader wrote on the social media site X.
“Anyone who believes in the correctness and justice of their positions is never afraid of opposing arguments.”
Among the plans being discussed has been a possible loan deal that could lead to part of the sculptures being sent from the British Museum to Athens.
Sunak wants to present himself as a defender of the Parthenon Sculptures, displayed at the British Museum, while portraying Sir Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour leader, as someone who is prepared to give them up.
The Financial Times last week revealed Starmer would not stand in the way of such a deal if he became prime minister, if it was mutually acceptable to both sides. Starmer went ahead with the Mitsotakis meeting on Monday, posting a picture of them shaking hands on X.
Referring to the planned Sunak-Mitsotakis encounter, a senior Conservative source said: “It became impossible for this meeting to go ahead following commentary regarding the Elgin Marbles prior to it.
“Our position is clear: the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here. It is reckless for any British politician to suggest that this is subject to negotiation.”
According to Greek officials, the meeting between the two prime ministers had been arranged without any press conference that could have led to questions on the Parthenon Marbles. The focus of the planned discussion between the two leaders was meant to have been migration issues and not the disputed sculptures.
Downing Street said the meeting had not been confirmed. Mitsotakis did not have a meeting with Sunak when he visited London last year either.
The issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles was between the British Museum and Athens, said a Greek official, and the understanding was that the cancellation of the meeting happened because of internal British politics.
Some senior Tories believe the snub was triggered by Sunak being annoyed that the Greek prime minister had decided first to meet Starmer, who is regarded as the favourite to win Britain’s next election.
One said: “I bet what really pissed off Sunak was the Greek PM meeting with Starmer. He’s going to have to get used to it.”
Sunak has previously attempted to portray Starmer as a “woke” politician and is arguing that the Labour leader is being “reckless” in even considering a deal involving the Parthenon sculptures.
George Osborne, a former Tory chancellor and chair of the British Museum, has been trying to negotiate with Mitsotakis over an innovative loan deal that would entail some of the frieze loaned to the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
In exchange some Greek treasures would be sent on loan to the museum in Bloomsbury in central London. Over time, different parts of the sculpture would be put on display in Greece.
“I hope we’ll find a way to partner with Greece so that a portion of the Marbles spend part of their time in Athens . . . and we see more of their treasures in return,” Osborne wrote in the Spectator earlier this month.
A 1963 Act of Parliament stops the British Museum permanently handing back the sculptures. Sunak’s government has said it will not change the legislation, as has Starmer.
However, the Labour leader’s allies say he is prepared to be flexible. “We’re sticking with the existing law, but if a loan deal that is mutually acceptable to the British Museum and the Greek government can be agreed, we won’t stand in the way,” said one person close to Starmer.
The Labour leader met Mitsotakis on Monday when the issue was discussed. “It wasn’t the focal point of the meeting,” said one ally of Starmer, who said this was a matter for the British Museum and Athens.
A Labour spokesperson said: “If the British prime minister isn’t able to meet with a European ally with whom Britain has important economic ties, this is further proof he isn’t able to provide the serious leadership our country requires.”