Marbles row leaves diplomats reassessing Sunak’s strategic grip

<span>Photograph: Frank Augstein/PA</span>
Photograph: Frank Augstein/PA

The Greek foreign minister, Giorgos Gerapetritis, was attending a two-day Nato summit in Brussels on Tuesday when he received an unexpected message from the British delegation. The foreign secretary, David Cameron, was hoping the minister might be available for an unscheduled meeting. There was much to discuss on migration, as well as the relief operation in Gaza. There was one condition from the UK: that there be no cameras.

Gerapetritis readily agreed, and one can only assume it took only an un-minuted raised eyebrow from Lord Cameron for the former prime minister to distance himself discreetly from Rishi Sunak’s bizarre decision to cancel a scheduled Downing Street visit with his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, set for 12.30pm on Tuesday.

No 10 is keen to leave the diplomatic debris behind. That is not surprising. Only 12% of British voters think Sunak’s snub was the right decision, according to a YouGov poll. The official UK account remains that Mitsotakis broke an undertaking not to talk about ownership of the Parthenon marbles on his four-day visit.

If Mitsotakis had agreed to this self-censorship, and his aides say it is untrue, it would have been the first time he had consented to such terms for a visit. On recent trips, including an address at the London School of Economics in November 2022, and in a meeting with Boris Johnson in 2021, Mitsotakis, a Harvard- and LSE-educated former banker, calmly made his case. On the second of those visits he also held private talks with George Osborne, the former chancellor and chair of the British Museum, that skirted around a loan deal.

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

The episode has left European diplomats in London scratching their heads. Mitsotakis, a rare thing in European politics as a re-elected incumbent, seems a natural ideological bedfellow for Sunak.

Moreover, many diplomats had assumed Cameron’s appointment was a signal that Sunak, with restricted vision on global issues, was largely subcontracting diplomacy to Cameron, partly to give Sunak time to focus on the domestic issues on which an election next year will turn.

The old arrangement, whereby the foreign secretary was the prime minister’s errand-runner had been jettisoned, it was assumed, allowing Cameron to bring some gravitas to Britain’s overseas dealings.

That has certainly been the mood inside the Foreign Office, where people were impressed by the quality of Cameron’s address to staff. They felt they had been given an entry ticket back into the big league. The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu took the time to meet the UK foreign minister in Israel was a sign that Cameron had opened doors for Britain.

Now European diplomats wonder how the Sunak-Cameron relationship will evolve and whether it denotes the start of a new odd couple in which Cameron will be cast in the role of a suave Peter Carington while Sunak, implausibly, seeks to become a latter-day Margaret Thatcher shouting “no, no, no” at passing foreigners.

In seeking a rationale for Sunak’s pique, some wonder whether No 10 took the phrase “culture war” too literally, and hoped Labour could be trapped into describing the Parthenon marbles as the spoils of British colonialism. In the US after all, a culture war has been literally fought monument by monument, and there is no greater monument than these sculptures.

The statues have a centrality in Greek cultural life that is not shared in the UK. More than 70% of British people have never visited the British Museum. For some, one suspects the Parthenon marbles are regarded as a pub game and the Acropolis the next team Brighton and Hove Albion have drawn in the Europa League.

A third intriguing theory for Sunak’s behaviour is not the return of the statues, but of the migrants. A centrepiece of the two men’s planned discussion was supposed to be an update of 2020’s UK-Greece joint action plan on migration. When it comes to “stopping the boats”, Mitsotakis has been the more brutal and effective. The number of people arriving in Greece to seek asylum has plummeted, partly due to a deal with Turkey. In a less-noticed part of his BBC interview, Mitsotakis said he noticed a significant proportion of people arriving in the UK were arriving through legal channels, a point that is made less diplomatically by Tory backbenchers furious that despite Brexit, net migration to the UK hit 745,000 in 2022.

Either way it has left diplomats in London reassessing Sunak’s character, and his strategic grip.

As one diplomat pointed out, if the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with his myriad explosive disagreements with Greece, is prepared to visit Athens next week in search of a “new chapter in relations”, how is it possible for Sunak to have such a falling out over the contents of a museum, or what he described as “a relitigation of the past”?

Moreover, the tide in cultural diplomacy is running against the “finders keepers” school advocated by Sunak.

Across Europe, diplomats are making a considered attempt to address the difficult issue of colonial restitution, including artefacts stolen at times of unequal power relationships.

In December last year, the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, travelled to Nigeria to hand over a set of Benin bronzes, a way of addressing “a dark colonial history”. The British Museum retains 900 of these bronzes.

Only last week, German authorities returned 75 archaeological artefacts to the government of Mexico in a ceremony held at the Mexican embassy in Berlin. The Africa Museum in Belgium has handed a full inventory of 84,000 items subject to possible restitution to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both Sicily and the Vatican have returned fragments of the Parthenon to Greece.

Sunak, however, has turned his back on that debate, leaving the Foreign Office in a bind. It is simply not sustainable for British politicians to say it is a matter for the museums to decide the legitimacy of their contents, and for museums to say their hands are tied by government laws. At some point, someone in government will have to address these issues in the round, and not through gestures.