In Depth

Brexit battle: is it time to return the Elgin Marbles?

EU adds clause to trade deal suggesting UK give the artefacts back to Greece

The EU has reportedly added an “Elgin Marbles clause” to its draft mandate for post-Brexit trade negotiations.

According to The Times, the document circulated among European governments in Brussels has “hardened EU demands in key traditional trade areas”, particularly fishing.

But it also included an unexpected “return and restitution” clause that would facilitate the transportation of the controversial fifth-century BC marble artefacts back to Greece, where they originated.

“The parties should address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their country of origin,” the draft read.

The Elgin Marbles have been a point of tension between London and Athens for more than 200 years, with Greece insisting that British diplomat Lord Elgin stole them from the Parthenon in Athens in the early 19th century when it was under Ottoman Turkish rule. But should the UK finally return them?

What are the Elgin Marbles?

The Elgin Marbles are a collection of Ancient Greek sculptures and architectural details originally housed in the Parthenon in Athens. They are understood to date back to the fifth century BC.

However, they have long been the subject of controversy after Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed half of the marble sculptures from the temple in 1803, before shipping them back to the UK where they are now on display at the British Museum in London.

According to Time magazine, Lord Elgin “claimed his imprimatur from an Ottoman sultan, who said he could remove anything from the Parthenon that did not interfere with the ancient citadel’s walls”. Furthermore, historians believe there was a significant risk that conflicts within the Ottoman Empire could lead to the destruction of the Parthenon and other Ancient Greek cultural sites.

However, Greece considers the marbles stolen goods, and has frequently demanded their return. Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that “the British Museum – claiming among other reasons that it has saved the marbles from certain damage and deterioration – has not acceded”.

Metro reports that the Acropolis Museum in Athens, which has the remaining sculptures that were left in Greece, “has left space empty for their return as part of its current display”.

Should the UK return them?

A leaked draft of Brussels’ negotiation mandate has, according to reports, included a stipulation that the UK should “return unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin”.

Sky News notes that the EU’s demand for the return of such objects “did not specify any specific items”, but adds that an EU official has said a “request for the clause was made by Greece”, indicating that the artefacts in question are the Elgin Marbles.

The clause was reportedly supported by Italy, and comes the month after Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni branded the taking of the marbles a “blatant act of serial theft” that was “motivated by financial gain”.

However, the issue looks to be heading for a stalemate in the wake of comments made in Athens and London this week. The Telegraph reports that Greek authorities have “denied reports that their return was a condition of the trade deal” and have “claimed the clause did not refer to them”.

Meanwhile, a UK government spokesperson firmly ruled out the return of the artefacts, claiming: “The UK’s position on the Parthenon sculptures remains unchanged – they are the legal responsibility of the British Museum. That is not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations.”

Furthermore, a British Museum spokesperson said it was clear from Greece that this was not about the marbles but the illicit trade in antiquities. “The Museum is very active in combating illicit trade so would welcome this addition,” the spokesperson said, but added: “The Parthenon Sculptures were legally acquired.”

As a result, despite one EU ambassador who helped draw up the draft telling the Times that Greece’s extraordinary request was “a measure of how Brexit has changed the game”, to some, now would be a poor time to organise the return of the marbles.

The Scotsman says that the future of the sculptures “should not be linked to trade talks about UK banks’ access to financial markets in the EU, fishing rights in the North Sea or car imports from Germany”, and instead the two parties should “enter into separate talks about returning the sculptures to Athens as a no-strings-attached gift”.

“Amid the over-heated talk about the ‘theft’ of the sculptures… doing so would be an extraordinary and disarming demonstration of friendship at a time when this is clearly in the UK’s national interest.”

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