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Poland clash center stage at EU summit despite energy crisis

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Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (L) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the European Council Building in Brussels on October 21, 2021,

YVES HERMAN | AFP | Getty Images

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The ongoing showdown between Poland and the European Union is set to dominate a Brussels summit this week.

EU leaders arriving in the Belgian capital on Thursday could not escape questions on the tense relationship between Warsaw and Brussels, and the subject was actually added to the agenda at the last minute.

“We are very concerned,” Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said Thursday on the escalating spat with Poland.

The eastern European nation and the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, have clashed for several years over the implementation of the rule of law, but their differences intensified earlier this month after the highest court in Poland said that parts of EU law were in conflict with the Polish constitution.

The decision ultimately challenges the supremacy of European law and the very foundations of the political and economic group.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, often at odds with Brussels himself, said he agrees with the ruling. “What is going on here is, regularly, European institutions circumvent the rights of the national parliaments and governments,” Orban said Thursday.

“Poland? Best country in Europe — there is no need to have any sanction, it is ridiculous,” Orban also said about potential action that Brussels might take against Warsaw.

The European Union was built on the principle that member states follow a common rulebook, even though they retain the final say in some policy areas. This means, for example, that an EU country is free to decide its own fiscal policy, but it’s supposed to have a public debt and deficit in line with EU rules.

Earlier this week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen engaged in a heated discussion on the matter. Morawiecki said his country would not be intimidated and the highest law in Poland was its constitution. On the other hand, von der Leyen said her team could take action.

“We cannot and we will not allow our common values to be put at risk. The Commission will act,” she said in Strasbourg, France.

Energy crisis

This all comes at a time when Europe is grappling with higher energy costs — a problem that, in the short term, could derail economic recovery and, in the long term, affect its climate ambitions.

At his arrival in Brussels, Orban also challenged the EU’s climate targets. “What Timmermans [Europe’s climate chief] and others proposed will kill the middle class of Europe,” he said.

The commission and some EU nations believe they need to accelerate the transition to a climate-neutral economy and invest more on renewables. But for Hungary, and notably Poland, they see a quick transition as a risk to their economies given the role that coal still plays in those countries.

Merkel’s last summit

Against this backdrop, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is preparing to say goodbye to European politics.

After 16 years in power, she is due to be replaced by Olaf Scholz, a socialist party member who has served as the country’s finance minister. Thursday and Friday’s summit in Brussels will be Merkel’s 107th gathering of this kind.

When asked if he was going to miss the presence of Merkel, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said: “Absolutely.” He told CNBC that Merkel was not just the German leader, but also a European and global leader.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told CNBC that Merkel is by nature a consensus builder and recognized how she played a key role in keeping Greece in the euro zone at the height of the sovereign debt crisis.

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Boeing, travel stocks surge as investors shrug off omicron concerns

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An American Airlines passenger jet approaches to land at LAX during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Los Angeles, California, April 7, 2021.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Boeing, airlines and other travel stocks surged on Monday after health experts shared early signs that the omicron variant of Covid may be causing milder symptoms than previous strains.

The travel sector was hard-hit by the emergence of omicron variant, which Botswana and South Africa first reported late last month. Cases were quickly detected in countries around the world, sparking renewed travel restrictions and outright bans, shortly after rules for international trips were loosened.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical advisor told CNN on Sunday that “although it’s too early to make any definitive statements about it, thus far it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it.” A report from the South African Medical Research Council, released Saturday, suggested that the strain could cause a milder infection.

Shares of Boeing were up more than 3% in afternoon trading on Monday, while American Airlines and United Airlines were each up more than 10%, among the highest gainers in the S&P 500, topped by Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean were up 12% and 11%, respectively. Online travel agency Expedia was trading more tan 8% higher.

Officials from the World Health Organization on Friday, however, warned against reading too much into data gleaned from the original cases in South Africa, saying it’s still too early to understand the severity of disease caused by omicron. Early reports of mild symptoms in some of the first cases where it was identified were based on a cluster of university students who tend to be younger and experience more mild symptoms than older adults, she said. Americans and Europeans also tend to be older and less healthy than the general population in South Africa, they noted.

“There was initial reports that it tended to be more mild, but it’s really too soon,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said in a Q&A streamed on the group’s social media channels. “Everybody who is infected with SARS-CoV-2 regardless of what variant will always start out with a mild disease. And so maybe it will stop there with mild, some people are asymptomatic of course, but it may stop with mild disease or it may take some time.”

Air travel jumped over the Thanksgiving holiday week, handing airlines some of their busiest days since the pandemic began, though still shy of 2019 levels. Omicron sent shares spiraling on concerns about a slump in demand.

Large network carriers are particularly dependent on longer-haul international trips, which have been slower to return in the pandemic compared with U.S. domestic travel.

-CNBC’s Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.

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Biden to warn Putin against Russian invasion of Ukraine

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This combination of pictures created on December 06, 2021 shows US President Joe Biden during a signing ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC on November 18, 2021 and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a congress of the United Russia party in Moscow, on December 4, 2021.

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WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden will warn Russian leader Vladimir Putin that the U.S. is prepared to impose severe economic countermeasures if Moscow carries out an attack on Ukraine, a senior administration official told reporters Monday.

The video call, which is set for Tuesday, will happen against a backdrop of amped-up tensions triggered in part by an alarming deployment of Russian troops and defense equipment along the country’s border with Ukraine.

“These movements are consistent with the planning that we see underway for a military escalation in Ukraine,” said the official, who declined to be named in order to discuss details of the upcoming call between Biden and Putin.

“We have had intensive discussions with our European partners about what we would do collectively in the event of a major Russian military escalation in Ukraine,” the official said. “We believe that we have a path forward that would involve substantial economic countermeasures by both Europe and the United States that would impose significant and severe economic harm on the Russian economy, should they choose to proceed.”

The administration official declined to say whether the U.S. would take direct military action against Russia if there were an invasion.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has warned Washington and European allies that Russian troops have amassed along its eastern border, a development that mimics Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. The annexation of Crimea sparked international uproar and triggered a series of sanctions on Moscow. Shortly after the invasion, a war broke out in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.

An unclassified U.S. intelligence document obtained by Reuters shows Russian military activity on the territory of Russia and Russian-annexed Crimea close to the border with Ukraine.

Reuters

“To be clear, we do not know whether President Putin has made a decision about further military escalation in Ukraine. But we do know that he is putting in place the capacity to engage in such escalation should he decide to do so,” the senior Biden administration official said.

“We’ve seen this Russian playbook before in 2014, when Russia last invaded Ukraine,” the official added.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has dismissed suggestions that Moscow was preparing for an attack on Ukraine and defended its right to deploy troops on its own territory.

Ukraine has previously pointed to Russian aggression as justification to accelerate its membership bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the world’s most powerful military alliance. Ukraine announced in 2002 that it would seek to join NATO. Moscow has called Ukraine’s ambition to join the alliance a “red line.”

Earlier on Monday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described the state of U.S. and Russian relations as “lamentable” and reiterated Moscow’s opposition to NATO’s expansion.

“The tense situation around Ukraine and NATO close-up to our borders will be discussed. And President Putin’s initiative on long-term guarantees of Russia’s security. All of these topics will be discussed,” Peskov said at a news conference previewing the call.

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“Of course, the bilateral relations will be discussed which are still in a lamentable state,” he added.

Last week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Moscow to deescalate tensions and reiterated that the alliance’s commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity “remains unwavering.”

“Ukraine is a sovereign, independent nation. And every sovereign, independent nation has the right to choose its own path, including what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of. So it is up to Ukraine and 30 allies to decide when Ukraine is ready to join the alliance,” Stoltenberg said during a NATO meeting in Riga, Latvia.

“[Russia] has no veto, no right to interfere in that process,” Stoltenberg said.

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Hedge fund pioneer Michael Steinhardt surrenders stolen antiquities, Vance says

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Michael Steinhardt

Scott Eells | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Hedge fund pioneer and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt has surrendered 180 stolen antiquities valued at $70 million and has been banned for life from acquiring antiquities, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said Monday.

The surrender of the items comes after a probe that began in 2017 into the billionaire Steinhardt’s “criminal conduct,” the DA’s office said in a statement. The agreement ends a grand jury probe of Steinhardt, meaning he will not be criminally charged in the case, according to DA’s office.

“The seized pieces were looted and illegally smuggled out of 11 countries, trafficked by 12 criminal smuggling networks, and lacked verifiable provenance prior to appearing on the international art market, according to the Statement of Facts summarizing the investigation,” the office said.

Vance said that the agreement with Steinhardt, 80, will return the stolen items to their rightful owners in those countries, instead of being held as evidence “to complete the grand jury indictment, trial, potential conviction and sentence.”

The agreement comes three years after Steinhardt’s office and home were raided by investigators as part of Vance’s probe. The DA said Steinhardt’s agreement to accept a lifetime ban from acquiring antiquities was “unprecedented.”

“Even though Steinhardt’s decades-long indifference to the rights of peoples to their own sacred treasures is appalling, the interests of justice prior to indictment and trial favor a resolution that ensures that a substantial portion of the damage to world cultural heritage will be undone, once and for all,” Vance said.

Steinhardt founded his company Steinhardt Partners LLP in 1967. He closed the hedge fund in 1995. Steinhardt also served 15 years as chairman of the board of Wisdom Tree Investments before retiring in 2019.

Steinhardt’s lawyers, Andrew Levander and Theodore Wells Jr., in a statement, said, “Mr. Steinhardt is pleased that the District Attorney’s years-long investigation has concluded without any charges, and that items wrongfully taken by others will be returned to their native countries.”

“Many of the dealers from whom Mr. Steinhardt bought these items made specific representations as to the dealers’ lawful title to the items, and to their alleged provenance,” the lawyer said. “To the extent these representations were false, Mr. Steinhardt has reserved his rights to seek recompense from the dealers involved.”

The DA’s office said that the probe began when investigators looked into the statue of a Lebanese bull’s head, which was stolen during the Lebanese Civil War.

That investigation determined Steinhardt had bought that multi-million-dollar statue and later loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the office said. That statue was seized, as was a second marble statue of a calf bearer, which also was from Lebanon, and which had also been bought by Steinhardt for millions of dollars.

“In the process of uncovering the Lebanese statues, the D.A.’s Office learned that Steinhardt possessed additional looted antiquities at his apartment and office, and, soon after, initiated a grand jury criminal investigation into his acquisition, possession, and sale of more than 1,000 antiquities since at least 1987, the office said.

“As part of this inquiry into criminal conduct by Steinhardt, the D.A.’s Office executed 17 judicially-ordered search warrants and conducted joint investigations with law-enforcement authorities in 11 countries: Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Turkey.

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Vance said in a statement, “For decades, Michael Steinhardt displayed a rapacious appetite for plundered artifacts without concern for the legality of his actions, the legitimacy of the pieces he bought and sold, or the grievous cultural damage he wrought across the globe,”

“His pursuit of ‘new’ additions to showcase and sell knew no geographic or moral boundaries, as reflected in the sprawling underworld of antiquities traffickers, crime bosses, money launderers, and tomb raiders he relied upon to expand his collection,” Vance said.

In 2019, The New York Times reported that six women had accused Steinhardt of sexual harassment. He denied the allegations.

The Times report, which also cited a lawsuit filed by another woman, said he had made sexual requests when the women sought support from the philanthropist. The Times also reported that Steinhardt appeared in two sexual harassment lawsuits, but was not named as a defendant in either case.

The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life called the Times report “intentionally defamatory.”

But in a statement, the foundation also said Steinhardt’s “sense of humor can be insensitive, and he has apologized for the unintended bad feelings his remarks have caused.” The website includes a statement from the billionaire, who denies ever trying to touch anyone inappropriately. 

Vance’s office detailed a number of the items surrendered by Steinhardt.

They include:

  • The Stag’s Head Rhyton, depicting a finely wrought stag’s head in the form of a ceremonial vessel for libations, purchased from The Merrin Gallery for $2.6 million in November 1991. The item, which dates to 400 B.C.E., first appeared without provenance on the international art market after rampant looting in Milas, Turkey. In March 1993, Steinhardt loaned the Stag’s Head Rhyton to the Met, where it remained until the D.A.’s Office applied for and received a warrant to seize it. Today, the Stag’s Head Rhyton is valued at $3.5 million.     
  • The Larnax, a small chest for human remains from Greek Island of Crete that dates between 1400-1200 B.C.E., purchased from known antiquities trafficker Eugene Alexandervia Seychelles-headquartered FAM Services for $575,000 in October 2016. Alexander instructed Steinhard to pay FAM Services via Satabank, a Malta-based financial institution later suspended for money laundering. While complaining about a subpoena requesting provenance documentation for a different stolen antiquity, Steinhardt pointed to the Larnax and said to an investigator with A.T.U.: “You see this piece? There’s no provenance for it. If I see a piece and I like it, then I buy it.” Today, the Larnax is valued at $1 million.     
  • The Ercolano Fresco purchased from convicted antiquities trafficker Robert Hechtand and his antiquities restorer Harry Burki with no prior provenance for $650,000 in November 1995. Depicting an infant Hercules strangling a snake sent by Hera to slay him, the Ercolano Fresco dates to 50 C.E. and was looted in 1995 from a Roman villa in the ruins of Herculaneum, located near modern Naples in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. It first appeared on the international art market on November 10, 1995 when Hecht’s business partner wrote Steinhardt regarding a “crate being delivered to you soon” with the artifact inside. Today, the Ercolano Fresco is valued at $1 million.
  • The Gold Bowl looted from Nimrud, Iraq, and purchased from Svatoslav Konkin with no prior provenance for $150,000 in July 2020. Beginning in 2015, objects from Nimrud were trafficked when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targeted cultural heritage from Nimrud, Hatra, and Khorsabad, particularly ancient objects made of gold or precious metal. The Gold Bowl, which is crafted from gold with a scalloped flower design, first surfaced on the international art market in October 2019, when a Customs and Border Patrol officer notified the D.A.’s Office that Konkin was on a flight from Hong Kong to Newark, New Jersey, hand-carrying the Gold Bowl for Steinhardt. Today, the Gold Bowl is valued at $200,000.     
  • Three Death Masks purchased from known antiquities trafficker GIL CHAYA with no provenance whatsoever for $400,000 in October 2007, less than a year after they surfaced on the international art market. The Death Masks (circa 6000 to 7000 B.C.E.) were crafted from stone and originated in the foothills of the Judean mountains, most likely in the Shephelah in Israel.  They appear soil-encrusted and covered in dirt in photographs recovered by Israeli law-enforcement authorities. Today, the Death Masks are valued at $650,000. 

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