The British media was quick to link a leaked clause in the latest draft of the European Union’s negotiating mandate over its future relationship with the UK to Greece’s claim to the Parthenon Marbles. “EU Chiefs Set to Demand Return of Elgin Marbles to Greece,” the Sun reported. “Greece Demands Elgin Marbles for EU Trade Deal,” the Times headline said.
While Greece has stepped up its campaign for the return of the Marbles in the Brexit era, it appears unlikely the EU will take up its two-century-old cause as a bargaining chip in a 21st-century trade deal. The clause probably refers more broadly to a desire that Britain should continue to abide by legislation such as the 2019 regulation on the import of cultural goods, designed to prevent the contemporary illicit trade in antiquities, says Alexander Herman, the assistant director of the Institute for Art and Law.
“If the true intent was to make this about the Parthenon Marbles, then different language would be used,” Herman said.
The clause in the draft mandate, which the EU is set to adopt on 25 February, says “the Parties should, consistently with Union rules, address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin.”
Whether the Earl of Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon Marbles from the Acropolis—a move that was highly controversial in Britain in the early 19th century—was “unlawful” is the crux of the dispute. Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, reiterated on BBC Radio Four today, the museum views its possession of the marbles as completely legal. They were brought to Britain, he said, “with the explicit permission of the Ottoman Empire.”
Greece sees it differently. Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said in an interview with Reuters last month that Elgin, who brought the friezes to Britain in the early 19th century, “deployed illegal and untoward measures to extract from Greece the sculptures of the Parthenon and a plethora of other antiquities in a blatant act of serial theft.”
She also made clear that Greece sees the talks on Britain's future relationship with the EU as a chance to push its campaign for the repatriation of the sculptures. “I think the right conditions have been created for their permanent return,” she said. “It is the mentality that has changed, the fact that Britain is distancing itself from the European family.”
The Parthenon Marbles that remain in Greece are on show in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, which opened in 2009. Next year, the country celebrates 200 years since the outbreak of its war of independence against Ottoman rule.
The opportunity of Brexit is “the best moment they have had in years” to push their campaign, says Mark Stephens, a solicitor at Howard Kennedy in London, who argues that the removal of the marbles from Greece was illegal. “The Greek state has been persistent in its request for their return and the British Museum has implacably set its face against that. The only way for Greece to deal with this is to use its economic muscle in this debate.”
Still, any resolution, Herman says, “would probably be at the museum level rather than the state level.” Among the ideas put forward by those in favour of a solution to the dispute is a proposal for a long-term loan to the Acropolis Museum in return for loans from Greece to the British Museum.