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Greece and Britain in a Diplomatic Incident Over The Parthenon Sculptures. Can a Deal be Achieved?

London & Athens, Tuesday 28 November 2023

Greece and Britain in a Diplomatic Incident Over The Parthenon Sculptures. Can a Deal be Achieved?

By Angelos Tsigkopoulos

Founder & CEO, Diorasis Group

Keynote Speaker at The International Negotiations Conference, NegotiCON 2024

Despite the meeting cancellation by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with his Greek counterpart wherein the contentious antiques were scheduled to be addressed, Greek officials announced on Tuesday that they will proceed with negotiations with the British Museum on the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Athens.

Although Mitsotakis had made an appearance on British television on Sunday and likened the removal of the statues from Athens to chopping the Mona Lisa in half, British officials offered no explanation for the cancellation.

When Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with Sunak in 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, he intended to discuss Greece's long-standing demand for the return of the ancient sculptures. The two politicians from the center-right were also scheduled to discuss immigration, climate change, and the ongoing hostilities in Gaza and Ukraine.

Hours before the scheduled meeting, Sunak cancelled, igniting a diplomatic spat between the two European partners. Instead, Mitsotakis was given an offer to meet with Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, but he turned it down.

The head of the Greek prime minister's press office, Dimitris Tsiodras, stated that Mitostakis was incensed about the "British misstep."

Naturally, he was upset. Look, Greece is a nation full with pride. Its past is extensive. Mitsotakis is a representative of that nation, Tsiodras said to Mega Channel of Greece.

Sunak's move was deemed inappropriate by Stefanos Kasselakis, the leader of the left-wing opposition in Greece.

He posted on X, the former Twitter platform, saying, "The case of the Parthenon Sculptures is an issue that goes beyond the Greek Prime Minister as an individual and beyond party differences." It is a national issue encompassing a whole people's history. Furthermore, the blatant appropriation of cultural riches from its natural environment raises moral concerns (Source: Kathimerini).

Why is this matter a thorn in the diplomatic relations between Greece and Britain?

A Controversial Historical Treasure

The Parthenon Sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles, are a collection of ancient Greek marble sculptures that once adorned the temple of the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis. However, today they are a subject of great controversy and debate, as they are split between Greece and the British Museum in London.

The Historical Context

The Parthenon was built between 447 and 432 BCE as a symbol of Athenian power and a tribute to the goddess Athena. The temple featured an impressive array of intricate sculptures, depicting scenes from Greek mythology and celebrating the city's cultural and artistic achievements. These masterpieces were commissioned by Pericles and crafted by the acclaimed sculptor Phidias and his team.

The Elgin Marbles Controversy

Who are the Elgin Marbles?

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of sculptures that were removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin, then British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the early 19th century. Lord Elgin argued that he was rescuing the sculptures from further deterioration and looting, as the Ottoman authorities did not adequately protect them.

Why are they controversial?

We can summarise this in two points:

1. Greece claims that the removal of the sculptures by Lord Elgin was illegal and that they should be returned to their rightful place in Athens.

2. The British Museum, on the other hand, argues that they were acquired legally and that the sculptures now have a universal value, representing the heritage of humanity.

The Repatriation Debate

Greece has long sought the return of the Parthenon Sculptures and has set up the Acropolis Museum in Athens to showcase the remaining sculptures in their original context. Supporters of repatriation argue that the sculptures belong to Greece and that their return would be a gesture of respect for the country's heritage and cultural identity.

However, those opposing repatriation argue that the British Museum provides wide access to the sculptures, allowing millions of visitors from around the world to appreciate their artistic and historical significance.

The Quest for Resolution

International Efforts

Greece has made several diplomatic efforts to secure the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, but so far, they have been unsuccessful. UNESCO has supported Greece in this matter, calling for negotiations between Greece and the British Museum to find a mutually beneficial solution.

Compromise Proposals

Some propose a compromise where the sculptures could be divided between Athens and London, allowing both cities to display a significant portion of the collection, while others suggest a long-term loan agreement, where the sculptures would be temporarily returned to Greece for a specific period.

Public Opinion

For the Greek people this is a matter of honour, a matter of pride. It would therefore not be unsafe to state that, if someone set an opinion poll in Greece and abroad, ten out of ten Greeks will vote in favour of the return of the Parthenon Sculptures.

At the same time, although supporters of the British Museum believe the Parthenon Sculptures should remain in London, the 53% of the public opinion in the UK believe the Parthenon Sculptures should be returned to Greece, according to a poll by The Standard, on 4 January 2023.

The Sculptures Should be Uniting the West

Known as the "golden age of ancient Greece," the Parthenon was built between 447 and 432 B.C.E., during a time of great artistic and military achievement. Prior to building the temple, the Athenians had repelled a Persian invasion, upholding their democracy, and the undertaking came to represent the conflict that would define the era.

Its decorative sculptures are regarded as some of the pinnacles of traditional Greek art and are a timeless representation of democracy, Ancient Greece, and Western civilisation. The latter is key to the approach of this matter; after all, the British philosopher and politician John Stuart Mill (20 May 1806 – 7 May 1873) stated that, “the battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings”. True; had the Persians been successful, the Western world as it is known today would have been a lot different. So if the Parthenon Sculptures are, among other, a symbol of the victory of the Western civilisation over the “Barbarians”, then this case needs to be approached under the Western civilisation values.

Where Does that Leave us? Are the Negotiations on the Right Path?

I was born in Greece and I was raised in London, living 27 out of my 45 years in Bayswater, West London.

If you are asking me, knowing both cultures well, as a conclusion I would say that the main reason this issue remains unresolved to this day, is the fact that the negotiations over all these years since 1983 when Greece formally requested the permanent return of the Parthenon Sculptures back to Greece, were put on the wrong basis by both sides.

If anything I have learnt during my 20+ years in (business) negotiations is that, understanding culture and the value system of your discussant, is the key to a successful negotiation; and by “successful” I mean a negotiation that allows you to leave the table being comfortable with what you have given Vs what you have taken, both, in quality and quantity. The “win-win” phrase, which has prevailed in the corporate world, is not of my taste as it denotes a battle; a negotiation can certainly be tough but when the line is crossed and this becomes a battle, both parties have lost by default.

If you think about it, this phrase creates a negative negotiation basis simply because you must “win” something, while the other party must also “win” something, which conclusively means that both parties have actually lost something! Give and take in a balanced and thus, comfortable manner, is an approach that allows mutual respect to grow and go home being comfortable with the result.

In Business terms, this result could for example allow you to use part of your available budget now and part at a later stage/later quarter, providing you with some financial “breathing” space, while in Politics/International Relations this balanced result could for example be part of a politician’s re-election campaign, where he/she could communicate that the outcome could in general terms be seen as fair and just.

These negotiations actually remind me a lot the BREXIT ones between the UK and the EU, where negotiators on both sides, failed to understand each other’s culture, with the general public feeling being that, “the UK wanted everything” while “the EU was ready to give everything, not”.

So far, the UK has lost 5% of its GDP because of the strategy and tactics of the government that negotiated the terms of BREXIT. Back then they at least had the support of the majority of the Brits who had voted to leave the EU; in the case of the Parthenon Sculptures, the 53% of the UK’s public, is in favour of returning these ancient pieces of Greek history, to Greece.

Despite the huge difference between an official country referendum and a poll in the media, peoples’ voice in any form is what really matters in a Democracy and that should be taken into account by all negotiators on both sides. You might ask, why should the Greek officials take this into account as well as their British counterparts?

Well, the answer is that an opinion poll is not enough to put pressure in reaching a deal. The Greeks must understand that the repatriation of the Parthenon Sculptures does not depend on an opinion poll and it is a more complicated issue than the emotion-driven statement, “they are ours – bring them back”.

It is certainly encouraging your case to be supported by the majority of the UK population, however, the Greek officials must also take into account the legal constraints due to the British Museum Act of 1963, based on which, "the trustees are not allowed to deaccession from the collection of the museum" and that, applies to the Parthenon Sculptures too. Furthermore, they must understand the business side of the Parthenon Sculptures being exhibited at the British museum that bring to the museum, around 4 million visitors each year. In short, if the Greeks would like to continue lobbying over this issue, their pressure and attention should be shifted to convincing the relevant authorities adjusting the British Museum Act of 1963 for a deal to be achieved.

Is There a Solution?

So one will now ask, “is there a solution”?

We saw that on one hand you have a law-driven Britain denying the return of the Parthenon Sculptures and on the other hand you have an emotion-driven Greece, who demands their return. The gap currently seems huge, however, if both parties approach each other’s cultures first and then the issue itself, a solution will be found one way or another.

Whether the sculptures will ultimately be returned to Greece or continue to reside in the British Museum, the debate ignites discussions on cultural heritage, national identity, and the ethics of historical artefacts’ ownership. As the controversy rages on, it is essential to remember the significance of these sculptures and the story they tell about the shared Western history of Greece and Britain.

I am therefore confident that two Western countries and NATO allies will eventually find a solution as long as they address the above issues in a spirit of mutual respect and an honest approach. After all, the Parthenon Sculptures continue to captivate both art enthusiasts and historians worldwide and while the controversy surrounding their ownership persists, it is undeniable that these masterpieces hold immense cultural and historical value for all humanity.


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