Greece says Parthenon marbles return not linked to Brexit talks

British Museum refuses to return 2,500-year-old treasures taken in 19th century

Section of a frieze of the ancient Elgin Marbles (Parthenon Marbles) from the Acropolis in Athens, which were acquired for the British Government in 1816 by Lord Elgin. Photograph: iStock

Section of a frieze of the ancient Elgin Marbles (Parthenon Marbles) from the Acropolis in Athens, which were acquired for the British Government in 1816 by Lord Elgin. Photograph: iStock

 

Greece distanced itself on Wednesday from suggestions that it planned to drag a centuries-old dispute over the return of the Parthenon marbles into Brexit negotiations.

Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Athens would keep up its campaign for the return of the 2,500-year-old treasures and would consider which tools could support its cause.

“Greece’s request for the return of the Parthenon marbles remains strong and it is not linked to a Brexit deal,” Mr Petsas said, asked if the issue could be a stumbling point in talks with Britain on its future relationship with the European Union.

“We’ll continue to call for their return and if this is a tool we can use, we’ll consider it in due course,” he said.

Since independence in 1832, Greece has repeatedly called for the return of the sculptures – known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles – that British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon temple in Athens in the early 19th century, when Greece was under Ottoman rule.

The British Museum in London has refused to return the sculptures – roughly half of a 160m frieze that adorned the fifth century BC monument – saying they were acquired by Elgin under a legal contract with the Ottoman Empire. It says they “are part of everyone’s shared heritage”.

A draft of the 27 EU nations’ position on negotiations with Britain on their future relationship, seen by Reuters on Tuesday, seeks the “return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin”.

The document did not specify any cultural objects, but an EU diplomat said it was added at the request of Greece, with support from Italy.

Last month, Greece’s culture minister Lina Mendoni called Elgin a “serial thief” who employed illegal tactics to take the marbles. She said she believed the circumstances were ripe for the marbles’ return.

The British government said returning the sculptures would not be discussed during the upcoming trade negotiations with the EU.

The Acropolis Museum in Athens, which has the remaining sculptures that were left in Greece, has left space empty for their return as part of its current display.

But a British government spokeswoman ruled out the prospect of discussing re-homing the sculptures during next month’s trade talks. “The EU are still finalising their mandate – this is currently in draft,” she said.

“The UK’s position on the Parthenon sculptures remains unchanged – they are legal responsibility of the British Museum. That is not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations.” Reters/PA