LONDON - UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday defended his decision to snub Kyriakos Mitsotakis, accusing his Greek counterpart of playing to the gallery in a row over ancient sculptures.
London and Athens have disputed claims about why the talks at Downing Street were shelved at the last minute, prompting an angry Mitsotakis to cut short a three-day visit to the British capital.
Mitsotakis on Wednesday appeared keen to diffuse the row, which the UK blamed on his comments in a weekend BBC interview about Greek claims to the Parthenon Marbles on display in the British Museum.
"This unfortunate event will not affect historically deep ties between Greece and the UK," Sunak said after meeting Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.
But Sunak was in no mood to back down, even when accused by opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer of playing "small politics" and of having "lost his marbles".
"We're always happy to discuss important topics of substance with our allies, like tackling illegal immigration or indeed strengthening our security," he told lawmakers in parliament.
"But when it was clear that the purpose of a meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future, but rather to grandstand and relitigate issues of the past, it was inappropriate."
Sunak said Greece had made "specific commitments and reassurances" not to publicly raise the subject but broke its promise.
"When people make commitments they should keep them," the Conservative leader added. Greece has denied any such assurances were given.
The diplomatic row -- at a time when the UK is still in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis -- has baffled many, given that the disputed ownership of the 2,500-year-old relics is well known.
The sculptures were taken from the Parthenon temple at the Acropolis in Greece in the early 19th century by British diplomat Thomas Bruce, the earl of Elgin.
Athens maintains the marbles, which are a major draw for visitors at London's British Museum, were stolen, while the UK claims they were obtained legally.
Starmer, tipped to become the UK's next prime minister after a general election expected next year, met Mitsotakis on Monday.
"I discussed with the Greek prime minister the economy, security, immigration, I also told him we wouldn't change the law regarding the marbles. It's not that difficult, prime minister," he said.
In response, Sunak accused Starmer of "backing an EU country over Britain".
In Athens, Mitsotakis put a positive spin on the public spat, saying it had made more people aware of Greece's claim to the marbles in the UK and beyond.
The 1963 British Museum Act prohibits the removal of objects from the institution's collection.
But officials at the museum, which is under pressure to repatriate other foreign antiquities, have not ruled out a possible loan deal.