Greece Denies Parthenon Marbles Return Tied to Brexit Talks

The Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, at the British Museum. (Photo by Eurokinissi/ Marcos Houzouris)

ATHENS – Refuting a media report, Greece’s New Democracy denied asking that return of the stolen Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum be linked to talks over terms of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

But government spokesman Stelios Petsas said the fight to get back the marbles taken two centuries earlier by Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin before the British Museum acquired them isn’t over.

He didn’t explain why Greece didn’t take the opportunity to use the so-called Brexit talks as leverage to get the marbles returned other than to suggest the government would use diplomacy and other channels that haven’t worked yet.

“Greece’s request for the return of the Parthenon marbles remains strong and it is not linked to a Brexit deal,” Petsas said, asked if the issue could be a catalyst in talks with Britain when terms for its final exit are worked out, although it technically departed on Jan. 31.

“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 without explaining why New Democracy didn’t use it to put pressure on the British Museum through the UK government.

Since independence in 1832, Greece has repeatedly called for the return of the sculptures – known in Britain as the Elgin Marbles — and a new Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 to showcase them if they were returned.

The Greek government reacted after agency Reuters reported the EU would add the Parthenon Marbles return to the Brexit agenda talks and try to get them back after Elgin took them off the face of the Parthenon during the Ottoman Occupation.

A draft of the 27 EU nations’ position on negotiations with Britain on their future relationship, which was seen by Reuters, seeks the “return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin.”
While that didn’t specify cultural objects, an EU diplomat not named said that it was added at the request of Greece’s New Democracy government after Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis earlier had requested only they be loaned as part of 2021 Greek celebrations marking independence from the Turks.

Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni in January said demand for the return of the marbles would be pushed but the government hasn’t moved to renew a legal challenge brought forth under an earlier New Democracy government which hired a British law firm including Amal Clooney, wife of actor George Clooney, also a champion for their return.

The UK has lost influence in the bloc and is backpedaling in the negotiations and expected to take a major trade hit but the British Museum has been steadfast the marbles will never be returned.

There was no immediate comment from the office of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the UK out of the European Union on January 31, more than three years after Britons voted in a referendum to leave.

The British Museum said the marbles, about half of a 160-meter (525-foot) frieze atop the Fifth Century Parthenon were acquired by Elgin under a legal contract with the Ottoman Empire, which didn’t own them.

An EU source, who declined to be named because discussions on the mandate are confidential, said the reference to stolen artifacts was included in a draft of the document as early as the previous week, said Reuters.

The source said it also had support from Cyprus and Spain and that along with Greek demands for the return that other EU countries were more concerned about the illegal trade of artifacts through London auction houses that have been kind of legal fences to sell off stolen goods from the bloc.