The Government has pushed back on the prospect of returning ancient artefacts to EU member states as part of post-Brexit trade plans.
A leaked draft EU document suggested the British government could be forced to return precious artefacts to their countries of origin as part of negotiations.
However, a No10 spokeswoman drew the line at the prospect of handing back the 5th Century Greek Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, which are currently housed in the British Museum.
She said: “The UK’s position on the Parthenon sculptures remains unchanged – they are legal responsibility of the British Museum. That is not up for discussion as part of our trade negotiations.”
The draft negotiation mandate, which circulated around Brussels on Tuesday, included an unexpected line on the “return and restitution” of high profile treasures.
It suggested parties – meaning the UK and EU member states – would need to address “issues” relating to “unlawfully removed cultural objects.”
These were understood to include the ancient marble sculptures, which Greece insists were stolen by British diplomat Lord Elgin from the Parthenon temple in Athens more than 200 years ago.
Athens’s Acropolis Museum, which holds the remaining sculptures left in Greece, has left space empty for the Elgin marbles’ return as part of its current display.
A senior EU source confirmed that Cyprus, Spain and Italy – countries which are equally concerned about trade in stolen antiquities – had joined the Greek government in pushing for the “cultural objects” clause.
According to The Times, the source said: “It is not specifically about the Elgin Marbles but of course the claim by Greece is longstanding and the Greek ambassador asked for it.
“London’s auction houses are big traders in ancient and historical artefacts and we want to make sure that if they are stolen they can be returned.”
It comes weeks after Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni said Brexit would strengthen European support for her country in its ongoing claim to the marbles.
Ms Mendoni argued that the ancient masterpiece had been taken from Greece as a “blatant act of serial theft” that was “motivated by financial gain”.
“I think the right conditions have been created for their permanent return,” she added.
The state of neglect currently presented by the British Museum strengthens Greece's righteous claim for a permanent return of the #Parthenon Sculptures to Athens, Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said referring to photos published in the press today. https://t.co/dmt0aahYM8pic.twitter.com/ZF7cCgWHyE— Greek Embassy UK (@GreeceinUK)September 11, 2019
The rise in cross-Channel tensions comes as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier rejected the UK’s calls for a Canada-style trade deal.
Mr Barnier reportedly told journalists in Brussels that Britain was too close a competitor to have such an arrangement.
The EU deal with Canada, which took seven years to hammer out, saw import tariffs on most goods eliminated between the two, though some customs and VAT checks remain.
"We remain ready to offer the UK an ambitious partnership," he said, according to the BBC.
"A trade agreement that includes in particular fishing and includes a level playing field, with a country that has a very particular proximity - a unique territorial and economic closeness - which is why it can't be compared to Canada or South Korea or Japan."
Mr Barnier’s hard stance emerged just hours after chief Brexit negotiator David Frost said the UK would never be bound by the bloc's rules.
"To think that we might accept EU supervision on so-called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing," Mr Frost said during a speech in Brussels.
"That isn't a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure – it is the point of the whole project."
He also vowed that the PM would not extend the transition beyond the current December 31 deadline.
Britain and the EU are due to launch negotiations on their future relationship in early March.
By the end of the year, they aim to agree a deal that covers a range of areas, including trade, security and fishing, as well as space and environmental cooperation.
The national ambassadors of the EU’s 27 member states are due to discuss their updated mandate for the Brussels-based executive on Wednesday.
It is due to get the final stamp of approval at a ministerial gathering later this month.
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