The government says it will not be discussing the return of the ‘Parthenon marbles to Greece’ as part of any future trade negotiations with the EU.
It comes after Brussels appeared to suggest that the Elgin Marbles could be the price of any future trade deal with Britain.
A leaked draft of Brussels’ negotiation mandate had included a stipulation that Britain should ‘return unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin’.
It is feared that the broad wording could be applied to include the Parthenon marbles, the ancient Greek sculptures commonly known as the Elgin marbles and on display in the British Museum.
The acquisition of the sculptures has been controversial for more than 200 years and 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.
However, a Government spokeswoman firmly ruled out any prospect of discussing re-homing the sculptures during next month’s trade talks.
A spokeswoman said: ‘The EU are still finalising their mandate – this is currently in draft.
‘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.’
According to a document shared on social media, the EU’s latest negotiating position called for the UK and Brussels to ‘address issues relating to the return or restitution of unlawfully removed cultural objects to their countries of origin’.
The Guardian reported that the proposition had been argued for by Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Greece, but was more to do with a desire to stop the fraudulent movement of antiquities around Europe rather than a direct reference to the marbles.
The Parthenon marbles, which date back to the fifth century BC, were once in the ancient Greek Parthenon temple and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens but around half were taken to Britain in the early nineteenth century by staff working for the Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce.
It comes as Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, warned that the UK would not be allowed to seal a trade deal similar to Canada’s, despite the Prime Minister pushing for such a free trade agreement
Mr Barnier is reported to have told journalists in Brussels that Britain was too much of a close competitor geographically to have a Canada-type arrangement.
The EU deal with Canada, which took seven years to complete, saw import tariffs on most goods eliminated between the two, though some customs and VAT checks remain.
Mr Barnier said: ‘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 comments were in response to David Frost, Boris Johnson’s Europe adviser, who used a major speech on Monday to dismiss talk of signing-up to a level playing field during the negotiations.
Mr Frost told students and academics at the Universite libre de Bruxelle: ‘It is central to our vision that we must have the ability to set laws that suit us – to claim the right that every other non-EU country in the world has.
‘So 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.’
He also vowed that the PM would not extend the transition beyond the current December 31 deadline.
Although the UK left the EU on January 31, it is currently in a transition period until the end of the year during which it is following Brussels’ rules without any say on them, as it looks to reach a new trading arrangement with its largest trading partner.