Rishi Sunak hits back at Greek PM as row over Elgin Marbles escalates

Rishi Sunak ditched talks with the Greek prime minister while the two nations disagree over the Elgin Marbles - ITV News Political Correspondent Shehab Khan reports

Rishi Sunak has hit back at the Greek PM, who has denied breaking an agreement not to use his trip to the UK as a "public platform" on which to demand the return of the Elgin Marbles.

The spat between the two countries has escalated after the prime minister unexpectedly ditched talks planned for Tuesday with Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Mr Sunak has accused Mr Mitsotakis of rowing back on "reassurances" that he would avoid igniting an open date about the ownership of the ancient artefacts.

But following comments broadcast by the Greek prime minister over the weekend, Mr Sunak decided it would "not be productive" to hold the face-to-face meeting.

It is understood Mr Mitsotakis, who spoke of his "dismay" at the apparent snub, plans to continue to raise the issue every time he comes to the UK.

He has also suggested Mr Sunak's decision could be "politically motivated", pointing to the fact that the prime minister is still "quite behind in the polls".

'The Elgin Marbles are actually protected under law and under that law they have to stay in the British Museum,' says Education Secretary Gillian Keegan

Mr Mitsotakis had been expecting to meet Mr Sunak during his visit to London on Tuesday, but was left "baffled" and "surprised" when it was cancelled at the 11th hour on Monday.

Number 10 told journalists that Mr Mitsotakis had agreed not to use his UK visit as a “public platform” to lobby for the return of the sculptures, but his comments on Sunday put the marbles "front and centre of the debate".

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Mitsotakis expressed a desire to see the artefacts returned to Athens from the British Museum, comparing the situation to the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.

The comments sparked a row that currently shows no sign of resolution.

Earlier on Tuesday, the prime minister was flanked by his Education Secretary who said it is "very clear" that the sculptures should stay in the British Museum.

Gillian Keegan said: "The Greek prime minister was offered a meeting with the deputy prime minister.

"Of course we do value our relationship with Greece. We work a lot in partnership to tackle organised crime and crime gangs, and other things we work together on.

"But it it also very clear the Elgin Marbles are actually protected under law, and under that law they have to stay in the British Museum."

However, Mr Sunak was criticised by a former Conservative Minister, who said: "Cancelling meetings at the last minute with leaders of allied countries is not only petulant and embarrassing, it reflects so badly on our country."

In a post on X, Zac Goldsmith added: "The Greek PM was literally just restating longstanding Greek policy. It should be possible to agree or disagree without insulting him and his country.

"As a Foreign Office Minister I was often baffled by Sunak’s clumsiness and sometimes rudeness towards foreign leaders."

Mr Sunak's spokesman said on Tuesday that Athens was “welcome” to make its position known on the marbles but felt “those conversations are best had in private”.

A source on the Greek side said that Mr Mitsotakis was expecting to discuss important diplomatic issues at the meeting, particularly focusing on preventing migrant sea crossings.

Tackling small boat crossings is one of Mr Sunak's top five priorities for the year.

Earlier this month, when his Rwanda deportation plan was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, he delivered a press conference in which he reasserted his commitment to the pledge.

The Greek PM likened the Elgin Marbles being kept by the British Museum to the Mona Lisa being cut in half. Credit: AP

Athens has long demanded the return of the historic works, also known as the Parthenon Sculptures, which were removed from Greece by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

Downing Street said it had been keen to avoid a repeat of Mr Mitsotakis’s visit to the UK in 2021, when the government again felt he had used the trip to press for the marbles’ return. Mr Mitsotakis, ahead of that occasion two years ago, had said the 17 figures “belong in the Acropolis Museum”. In an attempt to avoid a similar situation this time, Mr Sunak's spokesperson said Downing Street confirmed it had “sought assurances” that similar public pronouncements would not be made.

It also confirmed ministers have no plans to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

The Elgin Marbles have long been a point of contention between the UK and Greece. Credit: PA

There have been suggestions the meeting between Mr Sunak and Mr Mitsotakis was cancelled while the Greek PM was in talks with the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer.

Sir Keir had indicated he would tell the Greek premier that a Labour government would not change the law but that he would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable to the museum and the Greek government.

Labour criticised Mr Sunak's decision to cancel his meeting with his Greek counterpart.

"To pick a fight with a Nato ally for the sake of a headline shows just how weak Rishi Sunak is," a Labour Party spokesperson said.

"The Prime Minister should have been talking about the economy, immigration, the Middle East, that's what the country would expect from a leader but Rishi Sunak is no leader."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer held talks with the Greek PM on Monday. Credit: PA

British Museum chairman George Osborne, a former chancellor, has previously said he is exploring ways for the Elgin Marbles to be displayed in Greece, with speculation that this could involve a loan deal in which part of the set would be sent to Athens.

Asked about such an agreement, Mr Sunak’s spokesman told reporters: “We have no plans to change our approach and certainly we think that the museum is the right place for them.

“I haven’t asked him specifically about short-term or new ideas that have been put forward, but I think he’s been fairly robust on his position.”

The official also said the government had “no plans” to change the 1963 British Museum Act which prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.

“We have cared for the marbles for generations and our position is we want that to continue. The world comes to the UK regularly to see the marbles and there are no plans to change that or to change the law,” he said.

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