British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was due to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to discuss the Parthenon sculptures on Tuesday and was expected to reject pleas for their return to the Acropolis in Athens.
But he cancelled the meeting on Monday, a day after Mr Mitsotakis told the BBC the sculptures should be returned, saying that having some in London and the rest in Athens was like cutting the Mona Lisa in half.
Mr Mitsotakis rejected an offer to meet UK Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden instead.
The Greek Prime Minister and his team were “baffled, surprised and not a little bit annoyed” at the cancellation, according to a briefing. The meeting with Mr Sunak was also set to include talks on efforts to curb migrant sea crossings – a priority for the British leader.
“The Prime Minister is disappointed that Prime Minister Sunak cancelled their bilateral meeting at the 11th hour today,” a spokesman for Mr Mitsotakis said in a statement.
“Greece and Britain have a very deep history of friendship and co-operation, 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 and climate change, as well as common challenges such as migration and, of course, the Parthenon sculptures.”
Mr Mitsotakis spoke of his dismay over the move to cancel the meeting “just hours before it was due to take place”, in a statement published on X.
“Anyone who believes in the correctness and justice of their positions is never afraid of opposing arguments,” he said.
A spokesman for the Greek Prime Minister also said there were “domestic reasons” for the cancellation of Tuesday’s meeting and pointed to Mr Sunak being “quite behind in the polls” ahead of a likely general election next year.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday it was a “matter of regret” that Mr Mitsotakis declined to meet Mr Dowden.
“That offer was made. But the government set out its position about the Elgin Marbles very clearly, which is they should stay as part of the permanent collection of the British Museum,” said Mr Harper.
Asked whether it amounted to a snub by Mr Sunak, he said: “I’ve set out the position. I can keep repeating it.”
Mr Mitsotakis met Labour Party leader Keir Starmer during his visit to the UK. Mr Starmer indicated he would tell the Greek leader that a Labour government would not change the law, but that he would not stand in the way of a loan deal that was mutually acceptable to both parties.
A Labour readout of the meeting released on Monday did not mention the sculptures.
The 2,500-year-old sculptures have been housed at the British Museum since they were taken from the Acropolis in the 19th century by Lord Elgin. Greece does not recognise Britain's ownership of the artefacts and successive Greek governments have called for their return.
Speaking minutes before it was announced the talks were cancelled, Greek Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis said the sculptures were “better off” in his country.
“It’s about time we find a proper solution to allow the sculptures to return to Athens,” he said at the London School of Economics.
Returning the sculptures to their “birthplace” was important for the artefacts, he said, quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.
“It’s important to have great art and symbols of civilisation where they were born. The totality should be together,” Mr Gerapetritis said.
He pointed to a recent trend of returning antiquities to their place of origin, such as the Vatican's return of three fragments from the Parthenon this year.
“Six million people are waiting for the last caryatid to return,” Mr Gerapetritis said, referring to a sculpture housed at the British Museum.
In exchange, Greece could support a “broad partnership” involving research exchanges between the Acropolis and the museum.
Museum chairman George Osborne has held negotiations with Greece about the antiquities. But the countries were “still far away from a fully fledged agreement”, Mr Gerapetritis said.
“We need to downgrade the issue of ownership … and just move on with it,” he said.
He said he considered the marbles to be an “ecumenical issue” that made him “very emotional”. Asked to comment on Mr Sunak’s cancellation, Mr Gerapetritis first deflected the question, before referring to a temporary truce agreed on in Gaza.
“If Hamas [and Israel] are discussing”, then the British and Greek Prime Ministers could also meet for talks, he said.