The Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis believes that Britain is edging closer to returning the Elgin Marbles and will raise the subject with Liz Truss on a visit to London this year.
“At a time when Truss will be looking to build her credibility and when the UK is sort of cornered in terms of its overall image after the [Queen’s] funeral it will be a fantastic gesture, and that’s what I’ll tell her,” said Mitsotakis in an interview with The Sunday Times last week in Athens.
Ownership of the sculptures, part of a spectacular frieze, has been a source of rancour between Britain and Greece ever since Lord Elgin removed them from the Parthenon in 1801, claiming to have permission from occupying Ottoman authorities to send workmen up ladders to saw off marble figures of warriors, centaurs and gods.
Mitsotakis, 54, is heartened in his quest to get back the 2,500-year-old sculptures by past conversations with the new monarch.
A fervent promoter of clean energy — “a passion of mine” — the Greek premier has a “good personal relationship” with King Charles. While accepting that “he will be neutral”, he believes the King is supportive based on discussions “in his previous capacity as the Prince of Wales” when they met at Dumfries House, part of the Prince’s Foundation, six months ago.
The King, he noted, has “a Greek heritage which he values and cherishes very much”. Once a frequent visitor to Mount Athos, the ancient Orthodox monastic community, he told a state gathering in Athens last year: “Greece has long held the most special place in my heart, after all, Greece is the land of my grandfather and of my father’s birth.”
At the same time, talks this year between British and Greek officials have stirred expectations of a breakthrough on the marbles.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Dumfries House in April after an invitation from Charles. The pair are said to have a good personal relationship
“I think the mood is changing in the UK,” said Mitsotakis, referring to reports that, after decades of defensiveness, the British Museum may be ready to do a deal.
Mitsotakis, a Harvard-educated former banker who worked in London in the 1990s and speaks impeccable English, had thought Boris Johnson might help to break the stand-off: a recently unearthed article written by the former prime minister years ago as an Oxford classics student stated: “The Elgin Marbles should be displayed where they belong, in a country of bright sunshine and the landscape of Achilles, the ‘shadowy mountains and the echoing sea’.”
However, in a meeting with Mitsotakis last November in London Johnson simply reiterated the longstanding UK view that this was a matter for the trustees of the British Museum, which has always maintained the sculptures were legally obtained.
“Boris changes his mind,” said Mitsotakis, when asked about that encounter. He declined to go into details about the talks, which have been brokered by Unesco, the UN’s cultural agency. “We’re actively pursuing our options and want to be constructive also with the British Museum,” said Mitsotakis, who plans to visit London late next month.
It is understood an agreement is being sought that would end the bitter, 200-year-old deadlock over the question of ownership by considering the sculptures, which Greece has always claimed were stolen, as belonging not to a single country or museum but to the world.
They would just happen to be residing in Athens.
A “Parthenon Project”, meanwhile, supported by Greek and British activists, has been promoting the idea of a “cultural partnership” envisaging exhibits in London of other Greek archaeological treasures in return for the return of the marbles.
Some opponents of a deal worry that it might empty the British Museum of its treasures, strengthening demands from other countries with claims on exhibits such as the Rosetta Stone, the Easter Island statue and ancient Egyptian artefacts.
However, a YouGov poll last November indicated that 59 per cent of the British respondents thought the marbles belonged in Greece and only 18 per cent wanted them to stay in Britain (the rest had no opinion).
The British Museum has always maintained that the marbles were legally acquired
The Acropolis Museum at the foot of the Parthenon was purpose-built to display the marbles and already houses some of the sculptures that were assembled from fragments left behind by Elgin, who was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1799 and 1803.
Heads, feet and torsos of the same figures can be seen in London and Athens. Reuniting them at the Acropolis Museum is another “personal passion”, said Mitsotakis, as he sat behind his desk in an office the size of a tennis court in Maximos Mansion, the Greek No 10.
A compact figure in a pale blue shirt, he was born into a powerful political family. His father was prime minister. His elder sister was the capital’s mayor during the 2004 Athens Olympics and later foreign minister. Her son is the present mayor.
Since taking office in 2019 Mitsotakis is credited with engineering an economic miracle in Greece.
A decade ago it was one of the PIGS, a derogatory acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, whose economies were struggling badly.
The EU’s overlords in the north subjected Greece to constant criticism as a financial basket case. Today, though, the boot is on the other foot. Mitsotakis has emerged as an idol of the European centre right after seeing off populists and the pandemic and making Greece a magnet for foreign investment. Its growth rate – higher than 5 per cent this year – is the envy of former detractors, and proof that a PIG can fly.
Tourism, a traditional mainstay, is booming with 2022 expected to be the best summer yet. High-spending Americans had made “a big difference”, Mitsotakis said.
On a table at one end of his office was a basketball signed by Magic Johnson, the former American superstar who was among a throng of celebrities holidaying this summer in Greece: he enthused on social media about a “life-changing experience” at the Acropolis.
Mitsotakis, too, had an extraordinary experience this year, becoming the first Greek leader to address a joint session of the American congress in Washington, where he won multiple standing ovations for his forthright defence of Ukraine.
At the entrance to his office was a dog’s water bowl and a bed: the real master of the mansion is Peanut, a much fawned on former stray. “I picked him up from the shelter,” said Mitsotakis, feeding the dog a treat. “Actually, I think he picked me.”
A cloud hangs over this idyll, however – and it could put the prime minister in the political doghouse.
In August the leader of Pasok, the socialist opposition party, accused the country’s secret services of tapping his telephone. He also denounced a failed attempt to infect his mobile with a spyware programme called Predator. A journalist said he, too, was spied on. Mitsotakis dismissed the head of intelligence and the government’s general secretary, a nephew who worked in his office. He claimed that he had not been notified of the wire-tapping, which was legally approved by a prosecutor, and added: “I have not been able to get to the bottom of this. The explanations were not sufficient and that’s why I had to fire two people.”
He added: “If someone wanted to drive a wedge between me and Pasok, who are our likely coalition partners, they’ve certainly succeeded in doing that.”
This is not the only intrigue overshadowing his campaign for re-election next spring. Relations with Greece’s larger neighbour are at their lowest ebb in decades. Mitsotakis accused Turkey of spreading “disinformation” amid growing fears of military conflict.
President Erdogan, he said, was pursuing a “grandiose Ottoman vision. He wants to be a regional player and expects everybody to accept Turkey’s greatness, which is plainly not going to happen if this results in challenging Greek sovereignty”. The Nato allies are in dispute over various holiday islands in the Aegean Sea.
He also accused Russia, which shares the same Orthodox religion as Greece, of trying to undermine its democracy, citing a report by the US Department of Justice regarding the indictment of an oligarch alleged to have illegally funneled $10 million into the country in 2016 in violation of US sanctions.
The idea, said Mitsotakis, was to fund a TV network sympathetic to Moscow and the far-left Syriza party he defeated in 2019. The network’s “head of information” was Kostas Vaxovanis, a pro-Syriza journalist fiercely critical of Mitsotakis. “He runs a newspaper that was set up with the single purpose of going after me and my wife,” he added.
Mitsotakis worries that such skulduggery could put at risk the Greek transformation. In spite of becoming an exception in a world of gloom, “we still have to be careful”, he said. “If the UK can shake if you get the policy wrong, imagine what’s going to happen in Greece.”
He brightened at the thought of the comparison. Alluding to Britain’s fiscal woes under Truss’s new administration, he joked: “If you need experience in dealing with the IMF, we’re here to help.”