Greek leader declines meeting with UK deputy PM after Rishi Sunak’s snub

<span>Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA</span>
Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

The Greek prime minister has declined a meeting with the UK deputy prime minster, Oliver Dowden, after it was offered in place of talks with Rishi Sunak, amid an escalating row over repatriation of the Parthenon sculptures.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s prime minister, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the abrupt cancellation of a meeting on Monday with Sunak in London, at which he had planned to raise the issue of the sculptures.

A cabinet minister said on Monday that a meeting with Dowden on Tuesday was offered to Mitsotakis but it had “not been possible” for that to happen.

“That’s a matter of regret. That offer was made,” said Mark Harper, the transport minister, as the controversy overshadowed a morning broadcast round that he had intended to use to talk about a new transatlantic flight using sustainable aviation fuel.

He added: “But the government set out its position about the Elgin marbles very clearly, which is they should stay as part of the permanent collection of the British Museum.”

Downing Street is understood to believe that assurances were given that there would be no comments about the sculptures from the Greek side in advance of Mitsotakis meeting Sunak.

The sculptures were removed in circumstances that remain controversial at the behest of Lord Elgin, then the UK’s ambassador to the Ottoman court. The antiquities were shipped to London between 1801 and 1804 and sold to the British Museum in 1816.

Dowden has taken a hardline stance on the sculptures, in line with other Conservative MPs, telling a debate last year: “It is important that we protect our institutions like the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum from a barrage of restitution claims.”

Mitsotakis, who is understood to have flown home rather than meet Dowden, said: “I express my annoyance at the fact that the British prime minister cancelled our scheduled meeting a few hours before it was due to take place.

“Greece and Britain are united by traditionally strong ties of friendship and the framework of our bilateral relations is exceptionally broad. The views of Greece on the Parthenon sculptures are well known. I had hoped to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart along with other international challenges: Gaza, Ukraine, the climate crisis, migration.”

Ed Vaizey, a Conservative former culture minister who is the chair of the Parthenon Project, which aims to reunify the Parthenon sculptures with those at the Acropolis museum, said he did not know Sunak “felt so strongly” about the issue and suggested that the row was connected to ongoing “culture wars” promoted by the Tory right.

He told told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Sunak had put himself “front and centre” of the controversy when George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, was busily looking at a solution.

This was a reference to a proposed deal that has been under discussion between Greek officials and Osborne that would allow the sculptures to return to Athens in exchange for Greek treasures being displayed in London.

Vaizey said Osborne had put his “cards on the table” and Sunak’s stance was an “odd” one, adding: “There has never been a better moment that we could make a breakthrough, that this has erupted. It is tied up to a certain extent in the traditional culture wars, that anyone who dares to say British history isn’t perfect is somehow said not to be patriotic.”

Mitsotakis had already met the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, who described Downing Street’s apparent snub as “pathetic”.

The Greek government is reported to believe it has been assured by Starmer that in the event of a Labour electoral victory next year he would not block a prospective arrangement to return the Parthenon sculptures to Athens.

A Greek government spokesperson described Sunak’s move as “unprecedented” with senior officials saying Sunak’s cancellation of the scheduled meeting was tantamount to an own goal.

“We’re talking about a British foul,” said Dimitris Tsiodras who heads the prime ministerial press office. “Greece is a proud country, with a long history. Mitsotakis represents this country, this people. You can’t just say ‘look, the meeting isn’t going to happen. See the deputy PM,” he told Mega TV.

There was no question that Mitsotakis, who has made the sculptures’ repatriation a government priority, would not raise the issue during his visit to London, Tsiodras said.

“The prime minister raises the issue of the marbles’ return at every opportunity, he has raised it in the past, and he raised it on Sunday … it is a well known Greek position which he has expressed with great clarity … we were clear that the issue of the sculptures would be raised [in talks with Sunak].”

In the wake of what Athens has called unseemly behaviour on the part of Sunak, Tsiodras said it was clear the country’s renewed campaign to win back the sculptures had gained momentum and was paying off.

“British public opinion has begun to firmly change [in favour of their return to Athens from the British Museum]. Obviously this has annoyed Sunak because when you have a difference of opinion it doesn’t mean you don’t go ahead with a meeting. You have the meeting and exchange opposing views.”