October 20, 2003

Greek PM gets into trouble for asking Tony Blair for help with Elgin Marbles

Posted at 7:42 am in British Museum, Elgin Marbles

Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis has sparked a media furore after his comments to Tony Blair about the Parthenon Marbles were overheard.

BBC News

Last Updated: Saturday, 18 October, 2003, 05:35 GMT 06:35 UK
Greek PM in Elgin marbles upset

Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis has sparked outrage among opposition parties after telling his British counterpart, Tony Blair, that returning the Elgin Marbles, could help his re-election bid.

The row broke out after Greek television stations aired a clip of Mr Simitis – apparently unaware of nearby cameras – talking to Mr Blair about the marbles at the sidelines of the European Union summit in Brussels on Thursday.

“Tony, I would like to discuss with you about the marbles… as you know we have elections next year in Greece. Maybe this could be useful,” Mr Simitis was seen telling Mr Blair.

The opposition accused Mr Simitis of exploiting “the great national issue”, referring to Greece’s long campaign for the return of the 5th Century sculptures from the British Museum in London.

“Mr Simitis admitted in Brussels that he is losing the election,” said Thodors Roussopoulos, spokesman for the opposition New Democracy party.

“It is sad for him to use a national issue, such as the return of the Parthenon marbles, for petty party-political ends.”

The Greek media also had a field day on Friday.

“Tony, send me the marbles, I have elections,” read a headline in the daily Kathimerini, while the front page of Ta Nea’s newspaper had an article entitled “Codename: Marbles for elections”.

Mr Simitis defended himself by telling reporters that he wanted to point out to Mr Blair that there was not much time left to reach a deal on the marbles before the Athens Olympics in 2004.

Mr Simitis’ Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) hopes to secure a fourth consecutive term in the election, which is due next spring.

The PASOK has been trailing the New Democracy party for more than a year in several opinion polls.

The marbles – depicting gods, men and monsters – were removed from Athens’ Parthenon in 1811 by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that controlled Greece at the time.

Kathimerini (English Edition)

A Marbles mop-up
Embarrassed government hits at opposition, denies polls link

Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos gestures during a press conference called yesterday following Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s controversial broaching of Greece’s demand for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, when conversing with his British counterpart, Tony Blair. Simitis’s approach to Blair, during Thursday’s EU Brussels summit, linked the fifth-century BC sculptures’ restitution with Greece’s upcoming national elections.

The government yesterday tried to overcome the embarrassment generated on Thursday by a brief conversation between Prime Minister Costas Simitis and his British colleague Tony Blair — in which the former appeared to request the return of the British Museum’s Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles for electioneering reasons — by going on the offensive against the opposition.

On Thursday night, opposition New Democracy attacked Simitis about his alleged intention to use the return of the marble sculptures, taken to Britain by Lord Elgin in early 19th century, to attract votes in elections next spring. Yesterday, New Democracy spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos said that “all Greeks want the return of the Parthenon Marbles in order to right a historical wrong. Mr Simitis wants their return, as he declared (on Thursday) for petty party political gains. All those who saw the video with the Simitis-Blair conversation have understood.”

Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos used New Democracy’s statements to engage in some opposition-bashing and to deny that Simitis’s intentions had anything to do with his effort to win the next election.

“It is not the first time the Prime Minister of Greece has spoken about the issue with his British colleague, and it is very important that this issue is discussed at Prime Ministerial level… I have repeatedly told the British media than only the British prime minister can undertake an initiative and overcome (legal and historical obstacles) that are two centuries old,” Venizelos said. He said that New Democracy had committed a “historical mistake” by “essentially declaring that it prefers that the Marbles are not returned… ahead of the Olympic Games.” Venizelos said this “sends the wrong message” abroad and likened it to a hypothetical opposition on the part of New Democracy, on Cyprus’s accession to the European Union, just because it happened to take place under the socialist government.

Venizelos also denied rumors, published in the British press, that the Greek government was offering, in response to the return of the Marbles, its support for London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

What embarrassed the government most, however, was not New Democracy’s attack, but the scoffing tone that prevailed even in government-friendly media. Some radio program hosts joked that Simitis was about to demand from French President Jacques Chirac the return of the Venus de Milo or the Victory of Samothrace, both sculptures displayed in the Louvre museum.

Kathimerini (English Edition)

Petty motives

TV images are relentless and make no exceptions, not even for prime ministers. Without doubt, the prime minister was unlucky in a sense. Had the conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair not been recorded by a lurking television camera, it would have never reached the headlines, like much of the corridor talk between government officials at EU summits and other international events. The Greek premier was careless, so what he said to his British counterpart was aired, to the slight shock of the domestic public.

The problem, of course, is not that Simitis raised the issue of the return of the Parthenon Marbles — even if in an unofficial manner. Rather, it was that he connected the issue to the coming elections. True, any prime minister who strives to accomplish a national goal also has in mind the political gains that will accrue to himself and his party. But trivial as the incident was, the blatant association of the Marbles’ return with PASOK’s electioneering objectives offended public opinion.

The campaign for the return of the ancient Marbles was initiated by the late Socialist Culture Minister Melina Mercouri, when few thought that such efforts would bear fruit. Today, 20 years later, the aim is still unaccomplished, but looks more feasible than ever; and this is thanks to the efforts of a large number of people. It would be a sign of petty cynicism to turn this effort into an object of political expediency. In a sense, the incident confirms the widespread belief that Simitis is prepared to do anything it takes to reverse the negative ratings for his party.

Apart from the political facet of the case, there is also the aesthetic one. The TV picture spoke for itself, making any further comment unnecessary. Even those who never voted for the ruling Socialists must have cringed to see the prime minister cap in hand before a rather surprised Blair asking for a pre-election gift.

As if this were not enough, the ruling party made the situation worse. Instead of portraying the issue as an unfortunate event, it reacted in a manner that insults public intelligence. It takes a bottomless well of impudence to claim that Simitis did not say what everyone had heard him say. And yet Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos said exactly that, provoking sarcastic smiles among journalists. Similarly, Mass Media Deputy Minister Telemachos Hytiris went so far as to accuse New Democracy of being against the return of the Marbles.

The prime minister and his government cadres must at last realize that sometimes it is better to stay silent, for the sake of our intelligence and their political fortunes.

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