Talks on resolving the Parthenon sculptures dispute have hit a significant setback this week following a diplomatic row between Rishi Sunak and Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotaki.
Mitsotaki had been due to meet the UK PM for talks today (28 November) but the meeting was cancelled by Downing Street hours before it was due to take place.
Sunak reportedly scrapped the meeting in response to remarks made by Mitsotaki to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday, in which he said the sculptures were “essentially stolen” and compared their absence in Greece to the Mona Lisa being cut in half.
A Downing Street spokesman said that the Greek government had “provided reassurances that they would not use the visit as a public platform to relitigate long settled matters relating to the ownership of the Parthenon sculptures” and said that those assurances had not been adhered to.
The spokesman told reporters that Sunak had felt it would “not be productive” to go ahead with the meeting.
According to the BBC, a Greek government source has denied that any such assurances were given and claimed that preparations for the meeting had been smooth until late afternoon on Monday, long after the BBC interview took place.
Mitsotakis declined an offer to meet deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden instead.
In a statement, Mitsotakis said Greece’s position on the Parthenon sculptures was well known. He said: “I had hoped to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart.
“I express my annoyance that the British prime minister cancelled our planned meeting just hours before it was due to take place.”
The row comes as senior figures in the Conservative Party reportedly indicated that they would seek to block a loan deal with Greece. The potential deal – which is being pursued by British Museum chairman George Osborne – would see the sculptures return to Athens in exchange for loans of other Greek treasures.
A year ago, the two parties had appeared to be edging closer to an agreement, but discussions have since stalled.
A spokesman for Sunak has indicated that he would not be in favour of a loan arrangement for the sculptures. Sunak’s spokesman told reporters this week: “We have no plans to change our approach and certainly we think that the [British Museum] is the right place for them.”
A meeting between Mitsotakis and the Labour leader Keir Starmer went ahead on Monday this week as planned. According to the Financial Times, Starmer has indicated that he would support a “mutually acceptable” loan deal with Greece.
Responding to this week’s row, a Labour Party spokesman told the BBC: “To pick a fight with a Nato ally for the sake of a headline shows just how weak Rishi Sunak is.”