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Sunak loses marbles in Greek tragedy

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With the world falling apart as wars in the Middle East and Ukraine rage on, the British Prime Minister decided to pick a 200-year-old fight with Greece.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was in London for official meetings to be wrapped up with his UK counterpart Rishi Sunak.

There was much to discuss as the two countries are NATO allies and partners in tackling illegal migration.

This was diplomacy 101: talk shop with a close ally, agree to make the world a better place, bolster bilateral ties and see you at the next summit.

It’s what leaders of nations do when they are not embroiled in domestic politics, but Sunak decided to go off-road and cancelled his meeting with Mitsotakis very late in the day.

If he thought he was doing the popular thing by pandering to British public opinion, he read the room wrong, stoking a diplomatic row over an issue many feel embarrassed by.

Sunak went rogue by snubbing his European partner and showing huge disrespect to a friendly country.

He argued the Greek PM broke a promise not to discuss the Parthenon sculptures (Elgin marbles) publicly.

The Greeks denied they had such an agreement as a condition for a visit while arguing the British should know better than to treat a guest with such disregard.

What stuck in Sunak’s craw is that Mitsotakis essentially accused the colonial Britons of stealing the sculptures in a typically dodgy 19th-century deal.

During a BBC interview, Greece’s leader said having some of the treasures in London and others in Athens was like cutting the Mona Lisa in half.

He called for a partnership with the British Museum so people could “appreciate” the works “in their original setting”.

A collection of ancient Greek treasures from the Parthenon in Athens was taken and brought to the UK by British diplomat Lord Elgin.

In 1801, he negotiated what he claimed was permission from the Ottoman Turks to remove statues from the classical temple built by the Ancient Greeks (447-432 BC) – and caused some damage in doing so

They have been in the British Museum since 1832, but the Greeks wanted them back and built a Parthenon Museum to house them especially.

Mitsotakis was not playing politics but voicing the view of 11 million Greeks who believe the symbol of Western civilisation should be in their rightful birthplace.

Culture wars

On the contrary, Sunak was not voicing a groundswell of public support demanding he defend the Elgin Marbles to the death.

It was a culture war that was unnecessarily waged by Sunak, who seemingly wanted to defend the colonial past and stifle claims for the return of foreign treasures.

His knee-jerk reaction created a division where there was no frontline while legislation prevents objects from being removed from the British Museum.

Judging by UK phone-in shows, many feel the British leader was way off base and Greeks have a legitimate claim to their cultural heritage being held hostage.

There have been negotiations for the British Museum to loan the sculptures to Greece to bypass the ownership row.

Previous arguments claimed the artefacts would not be safe in Greece as there wasn’t an appropriate place to exhibit them – hence, the Greeks built a state-of-the-art museum in 2009.

Post-Brexit, Britain supposedly tried to improve relations with its European colleagues, not starting reckless culture wars that smack of colonial arrogance.

Creating a diplomatic dispute with Greece only made Sunak appear a small-minded statesman who opened the door to damaging ridicule.

During prime minister’s question time in parliament, Sunak was on the receiving end of withering criticism from Labour leader Keir Starmer.

He shouted across at Sunak: “Never mind the British Museum, it’s the prime minister who has obviously lost his marbles.”

Sunak retorted that Mitsotakis only wanted the meeting to “grandstand”, not to discuss substantive issues.

This was not a new argument, but Sunak made it his business to write a headline chapter on how not to behave.

Starmer did meet the Greek PM to discuss key issues and suggested Sunak could have done the same without the fireworks.

“I discussed with the Greek Prime Minister the economy, security, immigration.

“I also told him we wouldn’t change the law regarding the marbles. It’s not that difficult”.

As Mitsotakis agreed, Sunak did the opposite of what he set out to do by generating greater global awareness about the Parthenon Sculptures, maybe ushering them home quicker in the process.