Has Britain finally lost its marbles? For the United Kingdom to continue trading with the European Union, London’s British Museum must return the Elgin Marbles to Greece. That’s the message embedded within a clause recently added to the E.U.’s negotiating mandate, which says the British government should “address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin.”
Officials involved with the deal on both sides say that the clause is widely interpreted as a direct reference to the ancient artifacts, which were taken from the Parthenon in Athens at the start of the 19th century. The clause was added into the mandate as early as last week at the request of Greece with support from Italy, Cyprus, and Spain. The revised draft was reportedly circulated by the European Council, which sets the E.U.’s policy agenda and is staffed by the leaders of each member state who make decisions by consensus.
The mandate’s restitution clause demonstrates how E.U. member countries are using the trade negotiation as a bargaining chip for other longstanding grievances. For example, Spain is asking that the U.K. forfeit the British territory of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean, and France is demanding certain conditions on fishing rights.
Greece has demanded the return of the Parthenon marbles for centuries, questioning the legality of Lord Elgin’s possession of the antiquities during his visit to Athens, which was then under the Ottoman Empire’s rule. The British government has so far refused to budge on its position or negotiate terms of repatriation. The Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009 after a $175 million build, continues to hold space for the missing marbles in its third floor Parthenon gallery, exhibiting facsimiles of the absent antiquities.
Speaking with Bloomberg, one Greek official denied that the clause relates to the Elgin Marbles, saying the possibility of returning the sculptures remains a bilateral issue between the two countries. The official said it was a reference to stolen pieces including a number of 18th- and 19th-century paintings that often appear at auction in London.
Last month, Greece’s culture minister said that Athens would step up its campaign for the return of the Elgin Marbles and believed its European neighbors would support the cause. “It is the mentality that has changed, the fact that Britain is distancing itself from the European family, it is 200 years since the Greek revolution,” Lina Mendoni, the country’s culture minister, told Reuters. “I think the right conditions have been created for their permanent return.”
A spokeswoman for the British government said in a statement today that the U.K. planned to keep the Elgin Marbles in London. The works, the statement said, are “the legal responsibility of the British Museum.”
“That is not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations,” she continued.