Rishi Sunak has escalated a diplomatic spat over the Elgin Marbles by accusing his Greek counterpart of trying to “grandstand” and dredge up “issues of the past”.
The Prime Minister claimed Kyriakos Mitsotakis reneged on “specific commitments” to the UK by lobbying for the repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures during a visit to London.
No 10 has said the Greek leader’s intervention broke a promise not to “relitigate” the matter, prompting an angry denial from Athens, which accused Mr Sunak of playing electoral games.
Meanwhile, the European Union weighed in to the row to criticise the UK’s position, claiming Mr Sunak’s decision to cancel talks with his Greek counterpart at the 11th hour was “as un-British as it gets”.
Mr Sunak had been due to meet Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Tuesday but pulled the invitation just hours before the meeting was due to take place after the Greek leader used a BBC interview to claim that keeping the Marbles in Britain was equivalent to tearing the Mona Lisa in half.
Greece appeared keen to dampen the flames after an increasingly bitter tit-for-tat, with a senior government spokesman saying: “In the spirit of the good, long-standing relations between the two countries, which we intend to preserve, we have nothing more to add on this matter.”
Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission vice president, told Australia’s public broadcaster: “I’m still lost for words about what happened. Yes, in my mind there is no doubt that the Marbles should go back where they belong.”
Defending his actions during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Mr Sunak said: “It was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future, but rather to grandstand and re-litigate issues of the past.
“But furthermore, when specific commitments and specific assurances on that topic were made to this country, and then were broken, it may seem alien to him but my view is when people make commitments they should keep them.”
Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Sunak was trying to “hide his failures” by manufacturing a row over the Marbles. But Downing Street denied the Prime Minister was insulting the leader of a Nato ally to distract from anger over migration figures.
Giorgos Gerapetritis, the Greek foreign minister, criticised the snub and said: “Even Israel and Hamas communicate.” The Times reported that Mr Gerapetritis, who accompanied Mr Mitsotakis on his trip, claimed No 10 had committed “a massive diplomatic indiscretion”.
Labour said the Elgin Marbles would not be a “priority issue” under Sir Keir’s leadership.
The party has said it would not “stand in the way” if a loan is agreed with the British Museum, but ruled out changing the law to allow for the Marbles’ permanent return.