An overwhelming majority of British people back allowing the reunification of the Parthenon sculptures in London with those on display in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Brexit now means this is also in the UK’s national interest.
In 2018, pollsters YouGov asked more than 2,600 people in the UK whether sculptures taken from Athens’ ancient Parthenon by the Earl of Elgin in the early 19th century should stay in the British Museum or be reunited with the rest in the Acropolis Museum in Greece.
The result was the sort of landslide that most politicians can only dream about – 56 per cent said the sculptures belonged in Greece and just 20 per cent backed their retention in London, with “don’t knows” making up the rest.
This majority of more than two-to-one is similar to previous polls and means that allowing the restoration of the 2,500-year-old sculptures is supported by at least some people who voted for Brexit. And this is a finding that Britain’s current leaders should be keen to promote because it adds weight to their arguments that leaving the European Union is not about narrow jingoistic attitudes or a dislike of Europe.
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Now, as part of the Brexit trade talks, the EU has requested discussion of “issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin”, interpreted as a reference to the sculptures, popularly known in the UK as the Elgin Marbles. This is an issue that really does matter to Greece, a country that has suffered considerably since the 2008 financial crash and continues to struggle to cope with the ongoing refugee crisis, so it is understandable that the EU is willing to at least try to put this issue on the agenda.
However, it should not be. The future of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, which make up about half the total, 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.
Instead, the UK Government 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 – the circumstances of their removal from Athens are unclear – doing so would be an extraordinary and disarming demonstration of friendship at a time when this is clearly in the UK’s national interest.
The Brexit talks are already showing signs of a descent into acrimony that will only make Boris Johnson’s efforts to strike a trade deal in double-quick time harder. A gift of such significance would make a real difference.