The question isn’t “will Greece Use Brexit Negotiations to Recover Parthenon Marbles?” It’s really, “Can Greece” use its negotiations with Britain to get back the treasures that once adorned the Parthenon?
The simple answer is yes. Greece can.
Alexis Mantheakis, who co-founded the International Parthenon Sculptures Action Committee (IPSACI), told DW in an interview that “If (Britain) can give back India, it can empty one room in London to return these items.”
Mantheakis is referring to the negotiations that each European Union member state will engage in with Britain in order for Brexit to be finalized. There’s a unique opportunity here for Greece, according to Mantheakis, to use its negotiating power not only to demand the sculptures as part of Brexit negotiations, but also to stall the negotiation process.
Mantheakis said the real question was whether Greece’s government has the will to make demands. It’s possible that the current government will “go against the establishment.”
“We’re hoping the Greek government will do it. It’s a unique opportunity.”
At the turn of the 19th century, Lord Thomas Elgin followed the lead of other foreigners in Greece at the time: He chopped down war-scarred statues and friezes from the once grand Athenian temple and had them hauled off the craggy, steep bluff overlooking the ancient city and onto a ship bound for England. The British ambassador argued that they would receive better care in England than in Ottoman-ruled Greece.
Elgin shipped more than 50 friezes depicting a mythical battle and marble statues of the deities to Britain. Following public uproar – including a scathing poem by Lord Byron – the British Parliament purchased the art for 35,000 pounds.
Attempts by the Greek government to reunite the coveted statues with their brethren in the Acropolis Museum – which left space for the missing pieces in its latest renovations – have failed, including valiant efforts by the late Melina Mercouri, who served as Greece’s Culture Minister in the 1980s.
Greece is not alone in its mission: A number of British politicians and celebrities have spearheaded efforts to pressure the British Museum and Parliament.
Only 23 percent of respondents to a 2014 YouGov poll believed that the UK should keep Parthenon marbles. Roughly 30 percent said they didn’t mind either way; 37 percent responded that London should return them.
In 2015, the human rights lawyers Geoffrey Robertson, Norman Palmer and Amal Clooney urged Greece to bring the case before an international court. The Greek government declined the offer, however, noting that a diplomatic approach would be best.
This April, Robertson once again broached the topic, arguing that the EU had the duty to uphold European cultural heritage. “There is no more significant cultural heritage than the Parthenon marbles,” he wrote in a Guardian op-ed.
But Mantheakis’ idea to use Brexit may be a pipe dream.
As for using the sculptures as leverage in Brexit negotiations, the Greek Culture Ministry stressed that those are only the wishes of a few private citizens and “do not correspond to the official position of the Greek government.”