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Elly Symons’ speech, on the Parthenon Sculptures and Brexit

WHIA Conference - Athens: Monday 24th July 2017

The transcript of Elly Symons‘ speech, on the Parthenon Sculptures and Brexit, based on the arguments outlined by Geoffrey Robertson in 2017.

Ministers and Members of the Hellenic Parliament
Members of WHIA
Distinguished Guests
Colleagues and Friends,

It is a great honour to address you today in the Hellenic Parliament building on a subject close to my own heart and indeed to Hellenes and Philhellenes the world over:
The Parthenon Sculptures.

The Parthenon Sculptures, comprise the sculptured pediments, metopes and frieze on the 5th century BC Classical Greek Temple of Athena Parthenos, built by the Athenians as a glorious monument to democracy and freedom. I’m sure you are all aware, of the means by which they were scandalously removed by Lord Elgin and his men in 1801, abusing his power as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and then sold by a financially ruined Elgin to the British Museum in 1816, in what is undoubtedly the greatest art crime in history.

The Parthenon, as the ultimate expression of the achievements of Classical Athens in the 5th Century BC, represents an integral part of the foundation of our shared European and world cultural heritage.

Despite Greece’s long-standing requests and repeated calls for the reunification of all the known surviving sculptural elements in the Acropolis Museum, the United Kingdom has proven to be intransigent and steadfast in its refusal to even discuss return.
It has even previously demanded that the Greeks explicitly renounce their ownership of the Marbles before they will even discuss the possibility of short-term borrowing, something it did not require of Russia when it lent the Pedimental Sculpture of the River God Ilissos to the Hermitage Museum in 2013.

The British position has consistently been that the sculptures were legally acquired and are vested in the British Museum conveniently protected by a self-serving 1963 Act of the British Parliament which prohibits the British Museum from de-accessioning objects.


The British Museum contends that the Act of Parliament prohibits them returning any objects in its possession – including the Parthenon Marbles – and the British Government contends that the British Museum holds the Marbles in trust for the British people. So the Parthenon Marbles remain in the British Museum behind this self-serving circular argument and faulty logic.

The latest attempt at negotiations through a UNESCO-facilitated mediation failed in 2015 when the British received the invitation by UNESCO to mediate the issue. The British waited until the final days of the 6 month response period with a resounding refusal to participate in the mediation and confirming their position of ownership.

There has been no movement in the campaign since then.

But now we have Brexit.

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union and somewhat tense and fraught negotiations have recently begun to attempt to finalise the divorce between the UK and continental Europe.

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on European Union (TEU) provides that where a Member State decides to withdraw, in light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that state, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.

In her letter of 29 March 2017 to the president of the European Union, the British Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that the vote to leave the European Union did not represent a “rejection of the values we share as fellow Europeans” and that the United Kingdom remained committed partners and allies.

May stressed that the engagement should be one that is constructive and respectful and conducted in a spirit of “sincere cooperation” given that the UK wishes to continue to work together to advance and protect our shared European values. The Prime Minister reiterated that the world needs the “liberal, democratic values of Europe” to prosper.

In turn, the European Union published its draft guidelines following the United Kingdom’s notification under Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union. In that document, it specified that during the negotiations, the Union will act as one, it will be constructive throughout and will strive to find an agreement. It will abide by the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. In certain unique circumstances the European Union acknowledged that “flexible and imaginative solutions” will be required.

Greece, among others, is called upon to form a position concerning the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship. Brexit may therefore offer Greece a unique opportunity to impress upon its European partners that as part of a structured Brexit negotiation one particular “imaginative solution” that should be placed on the diplomatic table would relate to the eventual return of the Parthenon Sculptures to European soil.

This idea is not new.

In early 2017, at the 5th annual Greek Press Association dinner held in London, the guest speaker, Geoffrey Robertson QC, raised the proposal that Brexit could well bring the issue of the Parthenon sculptures to the fore.

According to Robertson, who was also one of the learned authors of a definitive legal advice delivered to the Greek Government in 2012 about the prospects of Greece considering litigation as a means of engaging the British in discussions and negotiations for the return of the sculptures, one of the consequences of Brexit will be that the UK will no longer be bound by Article 3 of the Treaty of the EU which provides that each member country must ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.

Accordingly, it is argued that Greece would have good reason to try to persuade its fellow member states to include the restitution of the Parthenon sculptures in their list of negotiation demands in exchange for satisfying one of the UK’s likely counter demands.
Such a strategy will require a combination of political will and diplomatic flair on the part of the Greeks, particularly as the Greek Foreign Ministry officially promotes the use of soft power as a persuasive approach to international relations through the nuanced use of cultural diplomacy and influence.

The Treaty of Lisbon places great importance on culture. The preamble to the treaty expressly refers to “drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe” and, as we have seen, Article 3 specifically mandates that Europe’s cultural heritage be safeguarded.

Article 167 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union – the so-called ‘article on culture’ – requires the EU to encourage co-operation between Member States and, if necessary, support and supplement their actions in the improvement of the knowledge and dissemination of the culture and history of the European peoples and conservation and safeguarding of cultural heritage of European significance.

This was reinforced by the Council of the European Union in its memorandum issued on 21 May 2014 in which it acknowledged that cultural heritage is a major asset for Europe and an important component of the European project. It also emphasised that cultural heritage can help promote diversity and intercultural dialogue while contributing to a stronger sense of ‘belonging’ to a wider community.

In April 2016 Federica Mogherini, the current High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice President of the European Commission, declared that the European Union is committed to developing a new strategy in international relations based on culture: SHE STATED:

“Probably no other place in the world has the same cultural ‘density’ as Europe. So much history, so many stories and cultures. We preserve millennial traditions and we are among the engines of global innovation. We should not be afraid to say we are a cultural superpower (for) our culture inspired the world because it was itself inspired by the world.

On FRIDAY, Ms Mogherini was in Athens and issued the following statement specifically acknowledging the contribution of Greece to Cultural Diplomacy in the European Union:
‘We are very well aware that Europe’s soft power lies on our cultural foundations. We can use culture as a way of creating dialogue, understanding and seeing that in this way, this understanding, conflict prevention and the creation and management of co-operation based on our cultural co-operation is an example of everything we do together in the European Union.
I want to thank Greece for this reason”

In March 2017 at the first G7 ministerial meeting on culture the joint declaration of the ministers of culture of the G7, amongst other things, reaffirmed their belief that cultural heritage, in all its forms, tangible and intangible, movable and immovable, being an extraordinary link between past, present and future of mankind, contributes to the preservation of identity and memory of mankind and encourages dialogue and cultural exchanges among nations, thereby fostering tolerance, mutual understanding recognition and respect for diversity.

And finally, 2018 has been officially designated as the European Year of Cultural Heritage. It offers an excellent opportunity to highlight the role of Europe’s cultural heritage in fostering a shared sense of history and identity.

And Greece and the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures should be at the centre of that conversation.

As culture is clearly a significant element in the European Union narrative and the Parthenon Sculptures – conceived and created during the Age of Classical Greece at the birthplace of democracy – are the par excellence of Europe’s cultural and architectural heritage, Greece should be seriously considering pursuing a Brexit-nuanced strategy of cultural diplomacy across Europe to arrive at a just solution to this long-running cultural property dispute.

Greece’s standing in matters of culture cannot be over-stated. On 24 April 2017 Greece, under the auspices of the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hosted in Athens the first Ministerial Conference of the ten countries participating in the Ancient Civilizations Forum (also known as the GC10), namely, Greece, China, Egypt, Bolivia, India, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Mexico and Peru.

According to Greece’s Foreign Minister, Mr Nikos Kotzias, the Forum was an opportunity to build a “positive agenda” for the multifunctional role that Greece can play internationally, noting that the participating countries are all considered cradles of ancient cultures and were coming together to discuss issues such as the role of culture as a source of soft power and the key tool of a modern and multidimensional foreign policy.

Already both Mr. Kotzias and the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Terens Quick, have had general discussions with their British counterparts. Obviously, there are many issues that may potentially impact Greece, including the future of Greek students pursuing studies in the UK, shipping and other aspects of Anglo-Hellenic trade and commerce, and the vexed and ongoing issue of the future of Cyprus.

Greece and the UK have long-standing and close historical ties, forged during the Greek Revolution of 1821 and rekindled on the battlefields of Europe during the Second World War when Greece joined Britain to fight the Nazi onslaught when the rest of Western Europe had succumbed. Of course, there is also a notorious historical link, namely, the actions of Lord Elgin, Britain’s then Ambassador to Constantinople, who abused his diplomatic position to oversee the stripping and removal of approximately one half of the exquisite statuary from the Parthenon and their eventual transfer to the British Museum where they presently remain on display.

In his discussions with the British Secretary of State for UN and Commonwealth Affairs, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Deputy Minister Quick noted the Secretary of State’s positive comments:

“Beyond what Europe is doing, I should remind you that with Greece, Great Britain has always had traditional political, diplomatic and friendly relations before the formation of the European Union. We are old allies, we have common interests, so we cannot remove them from our consideration when the time comes to look at issues in the post- Brexit era and in relation to Hellenism.”

The Greek President of the British-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce has correctly observed that the issue of whether Britain’s exit from the EU will offer more opportunities or threats to all sides involved will depend on the “political maturity, historical memory and thoroughness that we will show as a government, as productive entities, as a people, as Europeans.”

Greece has unsuccessfully sought the return of the Parthenon Sculptures for many decades with no movement or compromise ever shown by the British Museum or the UK Government.

Diplomatic conversations at meetings of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation over thirty years, have simply gone nowhere.

The British are clearly not interested in mediation and, Greece has for various reasons, formally eschewed the idea of litigation before the courts (notably the International Court of Justice), instead opting for the well-worn but ultimately futile to his point, diplomatic path.

But now the UK Government is forced to negotiate a Brexit deal amidst growing tension within its ranks and widespread concern as to how the country will emerge on “exit day”.
There is a lot at stake.

What can we as Hellenes and Philhellenes do to help?

The International Association for the Return of the Parthenon Sculptures, made up of 20 committees from around the world, has been at the forefront of lobbying this issue for over 30 years.

The Australian Committee lead by Mr David Hill, a prominent Australian businessman has worked tirelessly to promote the cause.

It is particularly important to note that any nation signatory to UNESCO has an obligation to oppose the retention of the Parthenon Sculptures by the UK.

Furthermore, you, as custodians of Hellenism in your professional lives as Legislators in your respective countries, can continue to be a strong voice on this issue. Although, many foreign offices in your countries argue that the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures is a bilateral disagreement between Greece and the U.K, through our united voice we must stand against this erroneous position and with reasoned and articulated arguments, persuade our governments of the importance of righting this historical wrong, if not at a national foreign policy level, at least as part of nuanced foreign policy objectives and part of an international conversation and dialogue.

In Australia, with the support of the Hon Ms Maria Vamvakinou from Melbourne, we assisted our Federal Parliamentarians to form a cross-partisan Federal Parliamentary Friends of the Parthenon group. This is a simple but highly symbolic action that you may like to consider in your own respective legislatures.

From time to time, Australian Parliamentarians both of Hellenic background and NON-Hellenic background, initiate private member’s bills, again another powerful action that publicises the issue.

In the UK in 2015, the President of the British Association, Mr Andrew George MP, tabled an ‘EARLY DAY MOTION” in the UK Parliament urging Britain to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

In your professional advocacy work, you also can continue the conversation of the importance of cultural heritage and of recognising historical cultural heritage issues that need to be righted.

As a matter of profound symbolism, the Australian Committee has suggested that the Greek Government represented by the Presidential Head of State, the Prime Minister or the Foreign Minister, should make an Annual official visit to the British Museum to view the Parthenon Sculptures. This annual pilgrimage would be a powerful reminder and respectful demonstration of the Hellenic Republic’s dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.

We must continue to keep the flame of Hellenism burning brightly in our adopted countries. We are here today, gathered from places far and wide to celebrate our Hellenic origins.

We are the custodians of the Hellenic ideals and its ultimate physical expression in the greatest building of all time – The Temple of Athena Parthenos.

The Parthenon Sculptures are the embodiment of the cultural heritage of Europe and a means to understand our past. Their return to Greece, combined with a reciprocal and recurring loan arrangement of other rare artefacts from Greece back to Britain, will not only bear testimony to the enduring character of the European Union and the social conscience of the United Kingdom to do the right thing, but will generate countless social and economic benefits for Greece in terms of growth and jobs, when after more than 200 years the sculptures of the Parthenon are finally and famously reunited in Athens.

It would be great if Greece seizes the promising opportunity that current negotiations of Brexit potentially offers to secure the return of the Parthenon Marbles

I would like to acknowledge and thank the co-author of this paper Mr George Vardas, my Australian co- Vice President, for his comprehensive knowledge of the history of the campaign and his outstanding contribution over some 25 years.

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