'It's not a snub, we offered them Oliver Dowden': Minister defends Sunak amid Elgin Marbles row

28 November 2023, 09:51 | Updated: 28 November 2023, 10:33

Mark Harper defending the handling of the row over the Elgin Marbles
Mark Harper defending the handling of the row over the Elgin Marbles. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

A minister has defended Rishi Sunak’s decision to not hold a meeting in person with the Greek prime minister in a row over the Elgin Marbles.

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Transport Secretary Mark Harper told Nick Ferrari on LBC this morning: “The PM set out the Government’s position quite clearly.

"They are owned by the British Museum and are part of their permanent collection.

"We offered a meeting with the Deputy Prime minister to meet with the Prime Minister of Greece and that proved not to be possible.

"I’m sure the PM will have many future meetings with the Greek PM in the weeks and months to come.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper on the Elgin Marbles

"The government offered a meeting with the Deputy Prime minister - a very senior level in the government."

Mr Sunak was accused of snubbing the Greek prime minister.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis was due to meet Mr Sunak today but the get-together was cancelled at the last minute.

It comes after Mr Mitsotakis called for the famous Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, to be returned to Greece from the British Museum.

A spokesman for his office said: "The prime minister is disappointed that Prime Minister Sunak cancelled their bilateral meeting at the 11th hour today.

Read more: India to help Greece and fellow 'victims of colonial appropriation' to push UK to give back Elgin Marbles

"Greece and Britain have a very deep history of friendship and cooperation, and the Greek government is extremely surprised by this decision.

"The prime minister was looking forward to discussing a range of topics of mutual interest including the Israel-Gaza conflict, Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine, climate change, as well as common challenges such as migration, and of course the Parthenon Sculptures."

Sunak snubbed the Greek PM
Sunak snubbed the Greek PM. Picture: Alamy

The British government instead offered for the Greek PM to meet with Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister. He has already met Sir Keir Starmer but declined to meet Dowden, and will head home on Tuesday.

A Tory source told the BBC: "It became impossible for this meeting to go ahead following commentary regarding the Elgin marbles prior to it.

"Our position is clear - the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here. It is reckless for any British politician to suggest that this is subject to negotiation."

Read more: Only 11% of Brits believe that Greece would return the Elgin Marbles after loan, new report claims

A Labour spokesperson said: "If the Prime Minister isn't able to meet with a European ally with whom Britain has important economic ties, this is further proof he isn't able to provide the serious economic leadership our country requires. Keir Starmer's Labour Party stands ready."

The marbles were taken to Britain by Lord Elgin in the 19th century, when he was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled Greece.

Mitsotakis called for the marbles' return
Mitsotakis called for the marbles' return. Picture: Alamy
The marbles are highly controversial and Greece wants them back
The marbles are highly controversial and Greece wants them back. Picture: Alamy

However, some of the artefacts from the Parthenon - about half - are in Greece.

Mr Mitsotakis had described them as like cutting the Mona Lisa in half in an interview with the BBC on Sunday.

"This is exactly what happened with the Parthenon sculptures and that is why we keep lobbying for a deal that would essentially be a partnership between Greece and the British Museum which would allow us to return the sculptures to Greece and have people appreciate them in their original setting," he said.