British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak accused his Greek counterpart on Wednesday of having sought to "entertain the gallery", by wanting to discuss the friezes of the Parthenon during a bilateral meeting planned in London that was ultimately canceled. The return of the friezes, on display in London at the British Museum, has been a subject of long-standing friction between Athens and London, and Rishi Sunak is opposed to their return to Greece. After the cancellation of their meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed his “dissatisfaction” and cut short his visit to London. On Wednesday, however, the latter seemed keen to ease tensions linked to his statements in an interview over the weekend with the BBC.
“This unfortunate event will not affect the historically deep Greek-British relations,” declared Kyriakos Mitsotakis after a meeting in Athens with the President of the Hellenic Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou. This affair “has a positive side because the just demand of (our) country for the reunification of the Parthenon marbles has gained publicity in the United Kingdom and in world public opinion”, nevertheless rejoiced the Greek Prime Minister.
But Rishi Sunak didn't give up on Wednesday during MPs' weekly questions. “It became clear that the objective of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future, but rather to entertain the gallery and revisit issues of the past, this was not appropriate” , did he declare. “I think that when you make commitments, you have to keep them,” he insisted.
On Tuesday, Downing Street explained the cancellation of the meeting by saying that the Greek leader had not kept his commitment not to use his visit as a “public platform” on the issue.
At the center of these tensions: the 75-meter frieze detached from the Parthenon, exhibited at the British Museum, whose restitution Greece has been demanding for decades. London claims that the sculptures were “legally acquired” in 1802 by the British diplomat Lord Elgin who sold them to the London museum. Greece maintains that they were the object of “looting” while the country was under Ottoman occupation.
After the cancellation of the meeting, criticism against Rishi Sunak increased from the British opposition, but also within the conservative majority. “The Prime Minister has clearly lost his mind,” Labor leader Keir Starmer told MPs on Wednesday, making a play on words with the expression “Parthenon marbles” in English. According to a recent You Gov poll, 53% of Britons are in favor of their restitution.