Skip Navigation

The Elgin Marbles and Brexit: Should the Cultural Meddle in the Political?

No other ancient artifact has been the subject of more intense, decades-long international debate than the Elgin Marbles. Since the 1980s the Greek government has in a spirit of nationalism argued for the repatriation of these classical masterpieces from the British Museum in London. But an old debate now gains a new dimension: Brexit.

The marbles, built for the Athenian Parthenon in 5th century BCE, have resided in the British Museum since the early 19th century, when Ottoman authorities granted permission to Lord Elgin for the removal of about half of the surviving marbles. That portion is currently in the ownership of the Trustees of the British Museum. Much of the debate on their repatriation has remained unchanged since the 80s. The Greeks argue that the marbles, as relics of their national cultural heritage, rightfully belong to them. The British Museum, on the other hand, contends that the marbles transcend national boundaries as part of a global cultural heritage.

Certain activists and Greek politicians have recently come to see the UK’s Brexit vote as an opportunity to shake up this debate. Since all 27 remaining states in the European Union can veto the exit deal, Greece could attempt to muscle into the final accord the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles. By refusing to comply with the political and economic terms of the agreement until the United Kingdom should agree to the repatriation, Greece could hold the U.K hostage for the marbles.

Though the general issue of the Elgin marbles is multidimensional, the employment of Brexit in it is misguided. This strategy wrongly conflates the political with the cultural; it hinges the consequences of a democratic political decision on a dispute over art, and it holds the British people responsible for a question that they never voted to answer.

Geoffrey Robertson, a proponent of a Brexit deal with the Elgin marbles, writes in the Guardian that articles 3 and 167 of the Treaty of the European Union legitimize the use of the marbles in the negotiation; article 3 “ensures that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.” Stelios Koulogou, a member of the European Parliament and an investigative journalist, furthers this argument by the assertion that, “The Parthenon Marbles are considered as the greatest symbol of European culture. Therefore, reuniting the marbles would be both a sign of respect and civilized relationship between Great Britain and the EU, and much more [than] a legal necessity.”

The problem is that the legal arguments for the return of the Elgin marbles are void. For years they hinged on some alleged historical uncertainty in Lord Elgin’s purchase from the Ottoman authorities. Many, however, including the British government, hold that the marbles were acquired in accordance with the law of the time. But the legality of the purchase, whatever it was, is anyway now irrelevant. In 2016 non-governmental campaigners brought the first ever legal suit on the issue to the European Court of Human Rights. The court dismissed it on the basis that the acquisition happened “too long ago,” well before any human rights agreement. The Greek Government itself, moreover, in 2015 ceased its attempt at a legal claim to the sculptures, and has officially committed to handle the issue by diplomacy alone.

The point is that there is no legal claim to the marbles; all arguments must therefore be cultural rather than legal. Yet the invocation of the articles of the Treaty of the European Union is a legal argument, for it employs law to justify the return of the marbles. Even the European Commission itself does not interpret those articles as pertaining to the controversy over the Elgin marble.

The British people, furthermore, in voting for Brexit, voted on their own political and economic future. They did not vote to sever all ties to the cultural heritage of the West. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union does not in any way imply that it wants nothing to do with art that originated in Europe. But if the advocates like Koulogou had their way, this cultural dispute, which was entirely irrelevant to the democratic decision of the people at the time of the referendum, would exert undue influence on their political and economic future. Dame Janet Suzman, chairwoman of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, aptly put it: “great art was as far from the question posed to the people as anything I can think of. This is entirely another question, a question of aesthetics, honesty, and colonial morality. It would be like putting apples and pears together.”

To leverage so consequential a democratic decision as Brexit, simply to acquire the upper hand in an ongoing dispute over art, borders on unethical. Issues of cultural heritage are important, and are often political. We must nonetheless be careful to distinguish where cultural disputes are politically relevant and ethically justified, and where they are not.



About the Author

James Flynn '20 is the former Section Manager for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. James can be reached at