Greek officials angry, puzzled after UK’s Sunak scraps meeting over Parthenon Marbles

Visitors look at ancient sculptures that are part of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Visitors look at ancient sculptures that are part of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON (AP) -- Greek officials said Tuesday they will continue talks with the British Museum about bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak abruptly canceling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.

But the U.K. government said ownership of the marbles is "settled" -- and they're British.

The two European allies traded barbs Tuesday in a deepening diplomatic row that erupted when Sunak called off a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hours before it was due to take place.

Mitsotakis had planned to raise Greece's decades-old demand for the return of the ancient sculptures when he met Sunak Tuesday at 10 Downing St. The two center-right leaders were also slated to talk about migration, climate change and the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.

Mitsotakis was instead offered a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, which he declined.

British officials were annoyed that Mitsotakis had appeared on British television Sunday and compared the removal of the sculptures from Athens to cutting the Mona Lisa in half.

Sunak's spokesman, Max Blain, said Mitsotakis had reneged on a promise not to talk publicly about the marbles during his three-day visit to Britain.

"The Greek government provided reassurances that they would not use the visit as a public platform to relegate long-settled matters relating to the ownership of the Parthenon Sculptures," he said. "Given those assurances were not adhered to, the prime minister felt it would not be productive" to have the meeting.

The Greek government denied Mitsotakis had agreed not to raise the subject in public.

Mitsotakis met Monday in London with U.K. opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, whose party leads Sunak's governing Conservatives in opinion polls. The prime minister's office denied that meting had contributed to Sunak's decision to cancel.

Dimitris Tsiodras, head of the Greek prime minister's press office, said Mitsotakis was angry at the "British misstep."

"Of course he was angry. ... Look, Greece is a proud country. It has a long history. Mitsotakis represents that country," Tsiodras told private network Mega television.

Opposition parties in Greece, from the Greek Communist Party and centrists to far-right nationalists, also condemned Sunak for the cancellation. Left-wing opposition leader Stefanos Kasselakis said the issue of the sculptures goes "beyond party differences."

"It is a national issue that concerns the history of an entire people. And it is a moral issue concerning the shameless theft of cultural wealth from its natural setting," he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Athens has long demanded the return of sculptures that were removed from Greece by British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century. Part of friezes that adorned the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, the Elgin Marbles -- as they are known in Britain -- have been displayed at the British Museum in London for more than two centuries. The remainder of the friezes are in a purpose-built museum in Athens.

The British Museum is banned by law from giving the sculptures back to Greece, but its leaders have held talks with Greek officials about a compromise, such as a long-term loan.

Earlier this year, museum chairman George Osborne -- Treasury chief in a previous Conservative U.K. government -- said the discussions had been "constructive."

Tsiodras said Tuesday that discussions "are ongoing with the British Museum for the return -- I should say the reunification -- of the marbles to Athens."

"I don't think the effort stops there," he said. "Clearly, there are domestic reasons and 2024 is an election year and (Sunak) is quite behind in the polls ... but the discussion with the British Museum is ongoing."

Sunak's government appears to have hardened its position, however.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said "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."

And Blain said "a loan cannot happen without the Greeks accepting that the British Museum are the legal owners" of the antiquities.

photo A visitor takes pictures of sculptures that are part of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
photo A visitor walks past ancient sculptures that are part of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
photo Visitors look at ancient sculptures that are part of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
photo Visitors look at sculptures in the Parthenon Gallery at the British Museum in London, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
photo A visitor takes pictures of sculptures that are part of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
photo Visitors look at sculptures in the Parthenon Gallery at the British Museum in London, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
photo FILE - Women stand by a marble statue of a naked youth thought to represent Greek god Dionysos, center, from the east pediment of the Parthenon, on display during a media photo opportunity to promote a forthcoming exhibition on the human body in ancient Greek art at the British Museum in London, on Jan. 8, 2015. Greek officials said Tuesday Nov. 28, 2023 that they will continue talks with the British Museum on bringing the Parthenon Marbles back to Athens, despite U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cancelling a meeting with his Greek counterpart where the contested antiquities were due to be discussed. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)
photo Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis, center, arrives at BBC Broadcasting House to appear on the BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, in London, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. (Jordan Pettitt/PA via AP)
photo A Christmas tree decoration in the shape of Big Ben hangs on the tree in Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. A diplomatic spat erupted Monday between Greece and Britain after the U.K. canceled a planned meeting of their prime ministers, prompting the Greek premier to accuse his British counterpart of trying to avoid discussing the contested Parthenon Marbles. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)