Past British Theft of Greek Cultural Heritage Turns into a Problem in Current Bilateral Relations

Strategic Council Online - Opinion: Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who traveled to Britain for an official visit, was ignored by the host in an undiplomatic move, and his planned meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was canceled and caused tension between the two countries. Following Sunak’s decision to cancel the meeting, security measures to be implemented for the Greek delegation were also canceled, which was a sign of the height of disrespect to the Greek Prime Minister. This British move is due to the differences between the two countries over returning the historic Parthenon statues, which are illegally kept in the London Museum, and Britain refuses to return them. Mahmoud Fazeli - International affairs analyst

The right-wing prime minister of Greece said in an interview with the BBC News, ‘The Parthenon marbles belong to Greece and should be returned to it. Continued display of stone sculptures in the British Museum is like cutting the Mona Lisa painting in half. Returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece is about “reunification,” not “ownership.”

The Greeks believe that those who firmly believe in the correctness and justice of their positions never hesitate in constructive discussion and debate. The Greek side, disappointed by the sudden cancellation of the meeting, rejected the British side’s claim that the parties agreed not to bring up the issue of returning the statues of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis and emphasized that, like all the meetings of the prime minister with his British counterparts in the past, the issue of returning the statues of the Parthenon temple would be raised.

Greek sources categorically deny the claim made by the British Prime Minister’s circles that it was agreed before the trip that the issue of the Parthenon statues would not be raised during Mitsotakis’s visit to London and that the Greek side did not comply with such agreement and claim that there had never been such an agreement between the two countries. It is obvious that due to the sensitivity of the issue of statues, the prime minister should use the opportunity of his presence in Britain to raise the issue. The meeting was pre-planned, and the schedule of the prime minister’s meetings was brought to the British side’s attention a few days earlier. It is natural that, like all the past meetings of the prime minister with his British counterparts, the issue of returning the statues of the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis would also be raised, and it was not different from the positions repeatedly expressed by the Greek governments. The above issue is not related to the government but to the British Museum, and the Greek government is negotiating with that museum.

The return of the “Parthenon” marble statues from the British Museum to Greece has become one of the issues discussed between the two countries in recent decades. This collection of ancient Greek works of art, which formed the main part of the Parthenon temple and other buildings of the Acropolis of Athens, was taken out of that country in the 19th century and placed in the London Museum. Now, a small part of that inscription remains in the Parthenon temple. According to the Greeks, this “mutilated” statue must be returned to its origin, Greece. From the point of view of Athens, the Acropolis does not belong only to Greece but is a world cultural heritage. In the past decades, Greece has sometimes raised this demand through political, cultural, and artistic figures in addition to its efforts to return those statues.

The British prime minister’s decision to cancel his meeting with his Greek counterpart was brought to the House of Commons of that country, and “Starmer,” the leader of the Labor Party, criticized the British prime minister’s approach and considered Greece to be one of the most important partners of Britain in the fight against illegal immigration. Instead of using the meeting to discuss serious issues, he tried to humiliate him and canceled the meeting at the last moment.

According to the British prime minister, when it became clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss fundamental issues but to review past problems, it was deemed inappropriate to hold the meeting. Certain undertakings and assurances on the statutes were given and then breached.

The sources of the British Conservative Party consider the return of the Acropolis statues as a mistake and that those works would not be returned, and the legal owner of the statues is the British Museum. A YouGov poll in London shows that 66 percent of the British prime minister’s decision to cancel the meeting with his Greek counterpart is wrong, and only 11 percent consider it right. Forty-nine percent favor returning the Acropolis statues to Greece, while 15 percent are against it.

In recent years, senior British political and cultural figures have repeatedly rejected the issue of returning the Greek statues from the London Museum and believe that the Parthenon marbles are legally owned by “Lord Elgin” according to the executive laws of that period. The 2,500-year-old statues, known as the “Elgin Marbles,” are legally in the collection of the British Museum.

Starmer, the leader of the Labor Party, also criticized the British prime minister’s approach and believes that Greece is one of our most important partners in the fight against illegal immigration. Still, instead of using this meeting to discuss serious issues, he tried to humiliate him and canceled the meeting at the last moment. George Osborne, head of the British Museum, also criticized the British prime minister’s decision to cancel his meeting with his Greek counterpart. According to him, how can you expect the prime minister of Greece to come to Britain and not raise the issue of statues?

In 2007, the Museum announced its desire to lend the Parthenon statues to Greece temporarily, provided that the Greek side recognized the museum’s ownership of those statues, which was met with a negative response from Greece. The statues have been the subject of a long-running dispute between Greece and Britain in recent decades. Around 1800, those marble statues were separated from the Parthenon temple from the Acropolis historical complex and transferred to Britain by Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin. Elgin sold those marbles to the British government, and in 1817, the government handed those works over to the British Museum. London has been claiming for years that those marbles were taken out of Greece with permission of “Lord Elgin” by the Ottoman Turks ruling over Greece, but Greece insists that the marbles had been stolen.

In Britain, many believe that the purpose of this move by London was to divert public opinion from the government’s problems surrounding immigration policy and to attract the attention of Conservative Party voters. Still, voters in Britain’s central and northern regions are not interested in the statues. Government sources believe that political and electoral motives were the main reason for this ugly move of the British prime minister. In the polls conducted on the eve of the 2024 elections, Sunak is about 20 percent behind the Labor Party candidate. Probably the British prime minister, to strengthen his popularity among the citizens who were against the return of the statues to Greece and considering the softer and more flexible position of the Labor Party on this issue, in a dramatic move, wanted to cancel his meeting with the Greek prime minister.

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