For the past two years, Greece’s government has conducted delicate negotiations with the British Museum over the future of the Parthenon marbles, the ancient Greek antiquities brought to Britain in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin.
Now, Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, appears to be throwing cold water on those discussions.
On Monday evening, Mr. Sunak abruptly canceled a planned wide-ranging meeting with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece, which had been scheduled for Tuesday. According to the BBC, the decision was made after Mr. Mitsotakis, appearing on British television on Sunday, called for the marbles, which include statues of Greek gods and carved frieze panels that once decorated the Parthenon, to be returned to Athens.
Mr. Mitsotakis said on the BBC television program that sculptures had been stolen and needed to be reunified in Athens. “Where can you best appreciate what is essentially one monument?” he said. The current situation, with the sculptures split largely between the British Museum in London and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, was unsatisfactory, he added, comparing it to cutting the Mona Lisa in half and splitting it between two museums.
Mr. Mitsotakis has made similar comments throughout his terms in office, and Mr. Sunak has also repeatedly stated he would not change British law to allow the sculptures, sometimes known as the Elgin Marbles, to leave the British Museum permanently.
In a statement, Mr. Mitsotakis said that he was dismayed that the meeting was canceled. “Greece’s positions on the issue of the Parthenon Sculptures are well known,” he said in the news release. “I was hoping to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart as well, along with the major challenges of the international moment: Gaza, Ukraine, Climate crisis, migration.”
Asked for the reasons the meeting was canceled, a spokeswoman for Sunak’s office sent a statement saying that the deputy prime minister was available to meet with Mr. Mitsotakis.
A British Museum spokeswoman said in an interview that the museum had no comment on Mr. Sunak’s decision, but that constructive talks were ongoing.
For Mr. Sunak, a diplomatic row with Greece is an unwelcome distraction at a time when he is dealing with a stagnant economy and a rift in his Conservative Party over immigration policy.
He had generally cultivated friendlier relations with other European leaders since he became prime minister last year. In February, he settled a standoff with the European Union over the post-Brexit trade status of Northern Ireland.
But Conservative politicians have long argued that the Parthenon sculptures are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and cannot simply be returned to Greece, whatever their provenance.
On Monday evening, Giorgos Gerapetritis, Greece’s foreign minister, said during a talk at the London School of Economics, that he did not think that disagreement over the sculptures future was a “legitimate” reason to cancel a high-level meeting.