Relations between the prime ministers of Greece and Britain are less than cheery this holiday season, after a scheduled meeting in London was cancelled a few hours prior, due to a row over the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak told members of parliament on November 29 he had cancelled a planned meeting with Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London the day before because the Greek prime minister had reneged on a promise not to use the four-day trip to advocate for the repatriation of the sculptures.

In Sunak’s first public comments, the British PM openly criticized Mitsotakis: “Of course we’re always happy to discuss important topics of substance with our allies, like tackling illegal migration or indeed strengthening our security.

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“But when it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues of the future but rather to grandstand and relitigate issues of the past, it was inappropriate.”

The cancelled meeting at Downing Street was scheduled for lunchtime on November 28, and prompted the office of Mitsotakis to issue a statement. “I express my annoyance at the fact that the British Prime Minister canceled our scheduled meeting a few hours before it was due to take place,” it read.

“Greece and Britain are united by traditional ties of friendship and the framework of our bilateral relations is extremely broad.”

Mitsotakis reiterated his country’s position that the famous marble sculptures on display at the British Museum should be returned to Athens. “I had hoped to have the opportunity to discuss them with my British counterpart, along with the major international challenges: Gaza, Ukraine, the climate crisis and migration … Anyone who believes his stance is right and just is never afraid of opposing arguments.”

Last month, British Museum chair George Osborne told a UK parliamentary committee that he had been in direct conversation with the Greek government about the desire to create a “proper partnership” to help resolve the multi-century dispute between the two nations. “That would mean objects from Greece coming here—objects that have potentially never left Greece before and certainly have never been seen in this country—and it would mean objects from the Parthenon collection potentially travelling to Greece,” he said at the time.

The Greek center-right leader filmed an interview with BBC News on November 16 and met with Labor leader Keir Starmer the following evening. The sculptures were central discussion topics during both events.

Mitsotakis’s remarks to BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg included the Greek prime minister reiterating his argument for the repatriation and reunification of the marble sculptures that had been removed by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, instead of the current division of the Parthenon Sculptures between London and Athens.

“Where can you best appreciate what is essentially one monument? I mean, it’s as if I told you that you would cut the Mona Lisa in half and you would have half of it at the Louvre and half of it at the British Museum,” he said. “Do you think your viewers would appreciate the beauty of the painting in such a way?”

Mitsotakis also told Kuenssberg that Greece had “not made as much progress” in the negotiations with Osborne and the British Museum. “But again, I’m a patient man and we’ve waited for hundreds of years and I will persist in these discussions,” he said.

According to a report from The Guardian, officials traveling with Mitsotakis said “there could be no doubt” the Greek prime minister’s comments during the BBC interview had contributed to the cancellation of the meeting with British prime minister Rishi Sunak on November 28.

One senior Conservative source, referring to the sculptures as the Elgin Marbles, told The Guardian: “It became impossible for this meeting to go ahead following commentary regarding the Elgin marbles prior to it.

“Our position is clear – the Elgin Marbles are part of the permanent collection of the British Museum and belong here. It is reckless for any British politician to suggest that this is subject to negotiation.”

In March, Sunak made it clear he did not have plans to return the sculptures to Greece.

“The UK has cared for the Elgin Marbles for generations,” Sunak told reporters on his way to California for a defense and security summit with President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. “Our galleries and museums are funded by taxpayers because they are a huge asset to this country.”

“We share their treasures with the world, and the world comes to the UK to see them. The collection of the British Museum is protected by law, and we have no plans to change it.”

The cancellation of the meeting between Greece and Britain also follows the recent announcement from the National Museum of Denmark that it would keep three Parthenon fragments after a request from the Acropolis Museum earlier this year for their custody and ownership.

“In this case, it has been assessed that the objects have a special role for Danish cultural history,” National Museum of Denmark director Rane Willerslev said in a press statement on November 22. “It is also an important point that these are very few objects out of a large amount of fragments preserved from the Parthenon Temple, where the majority of objects are in the British Museum in London and the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Therefore, we have assessed that the objects have a greater significance at the National Museum than if they were sent to Greece.”

While the majority of surviving Parthenon fragments remain divided between Athens and London, the National Museum’s head of research, Dr. Christian Sune Pedersen, also stated in a press release that the institution’s three fragments are of “great importance for Danish cultural history and for understanding our interaction with the world around us at a time when democracy was taking shape.”

The fragments consist of two marble heads and a horse’s hoof, which came to Denmark between 1688 and 1835. The three fragments are currently on display as part of the museum’s antiquities collection at the Prince’s Palace in Copenhagen.