Starmer slams Sunak for 'trying to humiliate' Greek PM over Elgin Marbles row as he accuses him of 'small politics'

29 November 2023, 12:58 | Updated: 29 November 2023, 13:32

Keir Starmer hit out at Rishi Sunak over cancelling the meeting with the Greek Prime Minister amid an Elgin Marbles row
Keir Starmer hit out at Rishi Sunak over cancelling the meeting with the Greek Prime Minister amid an Elgin Marbles row. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Sir Keir Starmer has hit out at Rishi Sunak for "trying to humiliate" the Greek Prime Minister by cancelling a meeting at the last minute over the Elgin Marbles row.

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The Labour leader told MPs that the decision to axe the meeting, because Kyriakos Mitsotakis said that the artefacts should be returned to Athens, was "small politics".

Sir Keir said at Prime Minister's Questions: "Never mind the British Museum, it’s the Prime Minister who’s obviously lost his marbles.

"Mr Speaker, the Greek Prime Minister came to London to meet him. A fellow NATO member; an economic ally. One of our most important partners in tackling economic migration.

"But instead of using that meeting to discuss serious issues, he tried to humiliate him, and cancelled at the last minute. Why such small politics, Prime Minister?"

Read more: Downing Street accuses Greece of focusing on 'ancient grievances' in row over Elgin Marbles

Read more: Migrant numbers 'need to be brought down' minister tells LBC as Tories at odds over immigration levels

The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Picture: Alamy

Mitsotakis was due to meet Sunak on Tuesday but the get-together was cancelled at the last minute after the Greek Prime Minister called for the Elgin Marbles, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens, to be returned to Greece from the British Museum. A Downing Street spokesperson later accused Greece of focusing on ancient grievances.

Mr Sunak and Mr Mitsotakis had been due to discuss topics like illegal migration, and the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden was offered instead, but Mr Mitsotakis declined this.

Responding to Sir Keir on Wednesday, Mr Sunak said that the Greek Prime Minister was 'grandstanding' with his comments about the marbles.

"Of course we’re always ready to discuss important topics of substance with our allies, like tackling illegal migration or indeed strengthening our security," he said.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday November 29, 2023.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday November 29, 2023. Picture: Alamy

"But when it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future, but rather to grandstand and re-litigate issues of the past, it wasn’t appropriate."

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay told LBC's Nick Ferrari that the Elgin Marbles constituted a "settled issue". "The British Museum is an absolute treasure, it’s something that people from around the world come and enjoy," he said.

Sir Keir opened questioning on Wednesday with a joke conflating the Marbles and the Conservatives.

He said: "In an effort to hide from his failures, his party spent this week arguing about an ancient relic that only a tiny minority of the country have any interest in - Mr Speaker, that’s enough about the Tory Party."

Greek foreign minister Giorgos Gerapetritis reiterated Greece's claim to the Marbles on Wednesday, after a meeting with Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron. "What I have to say is that the unification of the Parthenon Sculptures is a claim which is based not only on history, not only on justice but it's a claim of ecumenical cultural values," he said.

Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday November 29, 2023.
Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday November 29, 2023. Picture: Alamy

Giorgos Gerapetritis, the Greek foreign minister, said on Tuesday that cancelling such a meeting was "unheard of".

He added: "It is a massive diplomatic indiscretion. Even Israel and Hamas communicate."

Sir Keir did meet with Mr Mitsotakis on Monday. The Labour leader told MPs that the pair discussed the economy and migration, and that he told the Greek Prime Minister he wouldn’t change the law prohibiting the British Museum from handing over the Marbles.

"It’s not that difficult, Prime Minister," he told Mr Sunak. "The reality is simple: he has no plan on boat crossings, and migration is at a record high."

Sir Keir also said: "In 2019 they promised the country that they would control immigration, numbers will come down, the British people will be in control. How’s it going?"

Britain's Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer, left, meets with the Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London, Nov. 27, 2023. (Leon Neal/Pool via AP)
Britain's Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer, left, meets with the Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London, Nov. 27, 2023. (Leon Neal/Pool via AP). Picture: Alamy

Mr Sunak replied: "Let me be crystal clear, the levels of migration are far too high, and I’m determined to bring them back down to sustainable levels."

The Prime Minister also accused Sir Keir of being too close to the EU, claiming that the Labour leader would "back Brussels over Britain every single time".

He also referred to Sir Keir's comments on Classic FM that Beethoven's Ode to Joy - the EU anthem - was the piece of classic music which best "sums up the Labour Party."

Mr Sunak said: "No-one will be surprised that he's backing an EU country over Britain. Just this last week he was asked which song best sums up the Labour Party.

"What did he come up with? Well, he showed his true colours and chose Ode to Joy, literally the anthem of the European Union, and he will back Brussels over Britain every single time."

Read more: Keir Starmer picks EU anthem as song that 'sums up Labour Party' and invokes memories of Berlin Wall's collapse

Keir Starmer speaks to Classic FM on 'Ode to Joy'

The Elgin Marbles - also known as the Parthenon Marbles - are 2,500-year-old sculptures that Lord Elgin took from Athens and sold to the British government in 1816.

Lord Elgin's venture has been debated for more than 200 years. Some say that the Marbles were not being properly looked after on the Parthenon, and they are safer in the British Museum.

The museum said Lord Elgin's actions "were thoroughly investigated by a Parliamentary Select Committee in 1816 and found to be entirely legal, prior to the sculptures entering the collection of the British Museum by Act of Parliament."

Steve Barclay on Parthenon marbles row

The 1963 British Museum Act forbids the museum from giving away items in its collection, apart from under limited conditions.

The Marbles formed a 520ft frieze that ran around the outer walls of the Parthenon.

Carved between 447-432 BC, the frieze and other sculptures remained largely intact until the temple was partially blown up during a siege in 1687. The Parthenon was being used as a gunpowder store at the time by a Turkish garrison.

Mr Mitsotakis said taking the Marbles from Athens was like cutting the Mona Lisa in half.

Greece formally requested the Marbles' return in the early 1980s. Calls for the artefacts' repatriation have become louder in subsequent decades.

Caller on the Elgin Marbles

A Greek official claimed earlier this year that their government had been in talks with the British Museum over the temporary return of the marbles.

The official said: "We are working on a broad and lengthy cultural agreement that would include an interchange and rotation of historical artefacts between Greece and the British Museum." The museum said it has never received a loan request for the Marbles.

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