A cabinet minister has insisted the UK has “very good relations” with Greece despite a deepening row over the Elgin Marbles.
Steve Barclay, the environment secretary, told Sky News “sometimes people want to make this up into a bigger issue than it is” after Rishi Sunak cancelled a meeting with his Greek counterpart.
The prime minister is facing a backlash from opposition MPs and within his own party over the snub – branded by one former senior diplomat as “ludicrous, petulant behaviour”.
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The ancient Parthenon Sculptures are housed in London’s British Museum but Athens has long campaigned for their return.
Downing Street has accused the Greek government of breaking a promise not to raise the issue during Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s visit to the UK this week – but they say no such assurances were given.
Asked about the Greek foreign minister’s comments last night that the cancelled meeting is a “massive diplomatic indiscretion”, Mr Barclay sought to downplay any tensions.
He told Sky News: “I think the British Museum’s a jewel in the crown, it’s something that people from across the world come and enjoy, and we’re very proud of.
“So, I don’t think anyone wants to relitigate something that’s been settled for a huge amount of time.
“We have very good relations with the Greek government.
“In terms of the Elgin Marbles, they’re part of the British Museum. That’s something that’s been a constant for many decades. I don’t think anyone sees any need for that to change.”
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The comments came as the Greeks showed no signs of letting the issue drop, with foreign minister Giorgos Gerapetritis reiterating his country’s claim to the marbles as he attended a NATO summit alongside foreign secretary Lord David Cameron.
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He said the claim is based “not only on history, not only on justice but it’s a claim of ecumenical cultural values”.
However he said: “Irrespective of this, it is my understanding that we need to work on a bilateral basis with the UK and we’re going to serve this purpose in the future in order to deepen this long-standing history we have, the two nations.”
Greece has long demanded the return of the historic works, which were removed by Lord Elgin from Athens in the early 19th century when he was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Part of friezes that adorned the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, the sculptures have been displayed at the British Museum for more than 200 years, although some remain in a purpose-built museum in Athens.
On Sunday, Mr Mitsotakis told the BBC he planned to raise the issue in a meeting scheduled to take place with Mr Sunak on Tuesday, saying the situation was like the Mona Lisa painting being cut in half.
Downing Street said this is why they cancelled face to face talks, as it went against apparent “assurances” the Greeks gave that they would not use the UK visit as a “public platform” for the sculptures’ return.
However the Greek labour minister, Adonis Georgiades, told Sky News “this kind of agreement cannot ever happen with any Greek prime minister – and certainly with Kyriakos Mitsotakis”.
Greek sources said many geopolitical issues were high on the agenda, including preventing migrant sea crossings.
The row intensified last night after a spokesman for the Greek prime minister claimed there were “domestic reasons” behind Mr Sunak’s actions – pointing to him being “quite behind in the polls” ahead of a likely general election next year.
The debate about whether to return items brought to the UK during the time of the British Empire has become a battleground in the so-called culture wars that Mr Sunak’s Conservative Party has been accused of attempting to exploit.
While Greece maintains the sculptures were stolen, the 1963 British Museum Act prohibits the removal of objects from the institution’s collection.
However British Museum chairman George Osborne, a former Tory chancellor, is exploring a loan deal that could allow the marbles to be displayed in Greece in an attempt to settle the matter.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – who met with Mr Mitsotakis this week – is said to be supportive of this plan.
However Downing Street is opposed to it and Sky News understands government officials have discussed legal ways they could block any export of the Elgin Marbles.