LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak escalated his war of words with the leader of Greece on Wednesday, accusing Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of trying to “grandstand” over the disputed Parthenon Marbles and breaking a promise to the U.K. government.
Mitsotakis, meanwhile, said the dispute had helped draw international attention to Greece’s longstanding claim to the artifacts, part of a 2,500-year-old frieze that was taken from Athens in the early 19th century by British diplomat Lord Elgin. The artifacts are on display in the British Museum.
The two European allies with center-right governments have been at loggerheads since Monday, when Sunak called off a scheduled meeting with Mitsotakis hours before it was due to start.
During the British prime minister’s weekly question period in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Sunak said “it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future, but rather to grandstand and relitigate issues of the past.”
Greece and the United Kingdom have a long-running dispute over the Parthenon Marbles. Athens wants them returned so they can be displayed alongside the rest of the Parthenon sculptures at a purpose-built museum in Athens.
British officials were annoyed that Mitsotakis appeared on British television Sunday and compared the removal of the sculptures from Athens to cutting Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in half.
Sunak said Mitsotakis had reneged on a promise not to talk publicly about the marbles during his visit.
“Specific assurances on that topic were made to this country and then were broken,” Sunak said. “When people make commitments, they should keep them.”
Greece denied any such promise was made. The Greek government declined to comment further Wednesday.
“In the spirit of the good longstanding relations between the two countries, which we intend to preserve, we have nothing more to add on this matter,” it said.
Speaking before Sunak’s latest comments, Mitsotakis said he thought the spat “will not affect Greek-British relations in the long term.”
“There was a positive side to the cancellation of this meeting, that it gained even more publicity … (for) the fair request of Greece for the reunification of the sculptures of the Parthenon," he said in Athens.
Critics questioned Sunak’s motivation for stirring up a fight with Greece. Since taking office 13 months ago, he has smoothed relations with the European Union and its member nations after years of acrimony over Brexit.
Athens officials have pointed to the Conservative Party’s poor opinion poll ratings and Sunak’s long list of domestic woes, including a stagnant economy and an unmet promise to stop migrants reaching the U.K. across the English Channel in small boats.
Opinion surveys suggest British voters do not care strongly about the marbles and have other priorities, such as the cost of living and the overstretched National Health Service.
The leader of the U.K. opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, met with Mitsotakis in London on Monday. Starmer asked why Sunak was trying to “humiliate” the Greek leader.
“I discussed with the Greek prime minister the economy, security, immigration,” Starmer said. “I also told him we wouldn’t change the law regarding the Marbles. It’s not that difficult, prime minister.”