When Tony Blair was Prime Minister every fellow head of government wanted to meet him. Rishi Sunak is not quite in that league, but a British PM is a figure of power and influence in geo-politics and usually worth a photo-call.
Once the President of Switzerland was due to meet Blair, who rushed off to an urgent meeting in Northern Ireland instead. The Swiss media presented it as a major snub to their nice but unknown head of state. An emergency cabinet meeting was convened in Berne to discuss this affront to the Helvetic Confederation.
I was Europe minister at the time and knew Swiss politicians as skiing friends, so I got Blair to send a hand-written mea culpa letter and the offer of a new meeting. Face was saved and Anglo-Swiss amity restored.
It is difficult to know why No 10 has made such a mess of the Greek Prime Minister’s visit this week. Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the poster boy of the European centre-Right. He refuses all alliance with the Greek far-Right, in contrast to other European conservative parties which are dallying with quasi-racist, anti-immigrant, Muslim-hating political groups in order to win votes or gain office.
Mitsotakis has family in London, speaks the best English of any Greek PM in history, and comes to give talks to the London School of Economics and host swish dinners, pleading for inward investment in the City.
It was not a state visit – that is reserved for heads of state, not PMs, but it was high-level. He came with his foreign minister and defence minister, who attended the recent annual Greek-UK political-business-academic conference in London last month.
The UK’s ambassador in Athens came with the Greek delegation. These bi-lateral visit are organised and orchestrated by FCO officials and their opposite numbers in foreign capitals.
The No 10 line to explain the snub kept changing and remains incoherent. First it was that Mitsotakis had agreed not to raise the restitution of the famous Marbles. Debates about the (Tory) Lord Elgin using saws and axes to remove some of the friezes on the Parthenon, under the protection of Royal Navy warships who were guarding the Mediterranean against Napoleon, hasn’t stopped in two centuries.
The debate on looted art – rather like the Duke of Normandy helping himself to a couple of columns from Stonehenge after 1066 – runs on and on like most dialogues of the deaf. But internationally the mood has changed, as the global North accepts it can no longer keep the sculptures and other art taken from much weaker or not yet existent states two centuries ago.
Every Greek PM or Culture Minister has called for the Marbles to return and the Greeks have invested in one of the world’s best museums on the Acropolis. It has a spectacular empty hall full of sunlight looking out on to the glorious Parthenon, the founding building of what became European civilisation.
Of course Mitsotakis would have repeated the long-standing request and of course Sunak would have politely declined. The two PMs would then move along to immigration, where Mitsotakis has a good story, or Ukraine or concerns front-paged by the FT this week about Turkey funnelling arms to Putin.
Instead a spectacular diplomatic mess unfolded. Restitution is now part of modern diplomacy. Then No 10 said the problem was Mitsotakis meeting Sir Keir Starmer. This is silly. President Macron has met Starmer too, as European leaders want to get the measure of the man likely to be Britian’s next PM.
The BBC falsely reported that Starmer was willing to discuss returning the Marbles. But in his talk with Mitsotakis, it was hedged by so many caveats it was little different from the British Hellenist establishment line. That is: what we have we keep, possession is nine tenths of the law and the Greeks could go and jump off the Sounion cliffs from the Temple to Poseidon erected after Aegeus, King of Thrace, jumped to his death when he mistakenly thought his son Theseus had been killed in battle.
Then No 10 changed the line yet again, saying any discussion between Sunak and Mitsotakis was a “slippery slope”. To what or where was never explained.
Mitsotakis returned to Greece a hero for defending a core Greek national interest. Just about every retired British diplomat in the Lords, plus most commentators (other than Lord Hannan), agreed it was a diplomatic disaster for Britain.
Sunak seems to think voters will reward him for telling the Greeks to surrender to the guardians of the Marbles in the sterile, cold British Museum Duveen gallery, far from their native sunshine. A recent poll had 60 per cent supporting doing the right thing by Greece. Even Nigel Farage and Suella Braverman have kept their mouths closed enjoying Sunak’s self-imposed fiasco. The red wall doesn’t know who Lord Elgin was or where the Parthenon is located.
In Britain we know our Prime Minister to be petulant, moody and given to silly exaggeration. It is always a miserable time for an inexperienced politician when he takes over at the fag-end of a government that has lost élan and direction.
Now the rest of Europe knows that going politely for a bi-lateral meeting with Prime Minister Sunak may go badly wrong. British diplomacy will have to wait for new leadership before it recovers from this fiasco.
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