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Downing Street believed it had assurances from the Greek government that their prime minister would not raise the subject of the Parthenon Sculptures on his visit to the UK.
Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the BBC on Sunday that having some of the treasures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, in London and others in Athens was like cutting the Mona Lisa in half.
No 10 then cancelled PM Rishi Sunak’s meeting with Mr Mitsotakis.
Labour has branded the row “pathetic”.
The sculptures are a collection of ancient Greek treasures from the Parthenon which were taken and brought to the UK by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th Century. They are now in the British Museum.
Both Greece and the UK have long-standing positions on the sculptures, but diplomatic talks were expected to focus on other topics.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday that it was a “matter of regret” that no meeting would take place between the two countries after Mr Mitsotakis declined a secondary offer to meet Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead.
Asked whether the government’s treatment of the Greek leader was rude, Mr Harper said the Greeks had been offered a senior-level meeting but were entitled to take their own view.
Mr Sunak is keen to be seen as a defender of the marbles’ place in London. A senior Conservative source said last night: “Our position is clear – the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here.”
There is ongoing wider debate around the place of museums and their collections in a post-colonial world, with Mr Sunak seemingly positioning himself decisively on one side of that argument.
There also appears to be a divide with Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party on this issue.
Labour is distancing itself from reports in a Greek newspaper suggesting it was open to “a legal formula” for the return of the sculptures to Greece.
Instead, the party says its position is that if the British Museum and the Greek government came to a loan agreement, a Labour government would not stand in the way.
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