European Western Balkans

Lithium mining project returns to focus in Serbia, European Commission reiterates it wants a strategic partnership on raw materials

The meeting between Maroš Ševčovič and Aleksandar Vučić in Brussels, March 2024; Photo: Instagram / buducnostsrbijeav

Commenting on the latest reports by Financial Times about the readiness of Serbia to greenlight the previously cancelled lithium mining project, with the involvement of the European Union, Johanna Bernsel, the European Commission’s Spokesperson for the Internal Market, states for the European Western Balkans that the EU remains committed to entering into a strategic partnership on critical raw materials with Serbia.

Bernsel explains that this partnership would be based on a Letter of Intent, signed in September 2023 by the European Commission Vice President Maroš Ševčovič and the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.

She underlines that if such an initiative is implemented, it will be 14th strategic partnership that the EU has established with third countries in the domain of critical raw materials. The official web portal of European Commission states that the European Union has a strategic partnership in this domain with countries such as Argentina, Congo, Norway, Kazakhstan.

Johanna Bernsel underlines that the European Union insists on the fact that the extraction of critical raw materials “is based on a regulatory framework and practices aligned with EU environmental rule”.

“The EU remains committed to entering a strategic partnership with Serbia which contributes both to creating a sustainable and competitive e-mobility ecosystem in Serbia and to developing a framework for ensuring a secure and sustainable supply of Critical Raw Materials in the EU”, she adds.

Financial Times: Serbia to approve Rio Tinto project, mine could open in 2028

Financial Times reports that Serbia is preparing to give Rio Tinto the green light to develop Europe’s largest lithium mine, two years after Belgrade called off the project.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said for FT that “new guarantees” from the Anglo-Australian miner and EU looked set to address Serbia’s concerns over whether necessary environmental standards would be met at the Jadar site in the west of the country.

Vučić indicated that he was confident he would also secure the necessary commitments from EU leaders for related investments in Serbia, such as battery manufacturing and electric vehicle production. As long as his demands over “the whole value chain plus perfect environmental protections” were met, Vučić said, he expected business and political leaders would come to Belgrade next month for a formal announcement on the project.

Asked to comment on the claims made by the Financial Times, Johanna Bernsel states for EWB: “In general, we do not comment on specific comments, a policy which includes these specific comments by President Vučić”.

“It is for national Governments to make decisions on specific industrial projects and to create economic opportunities”, she stresses.

FT reminds that the Serbian Government revoked Rio Tinto’s licences in January 2022 after protests, led by environmental groups concerned about water pollution, displacement of residents and damage to the area once the mine closed, blocked highways and bridges across Serbia.

Environmental protests in Serbia, December 2021; Photo: Facebook / Ne davimo Beograd

Which document did Ševčovič and Vučić sign last year?

Demsel states for EWB that, building on the Letter of Intent, signed by Serbia and EC in September 2023, “the Commission is proposing to establish a Memorandum of Understanding between the EU and Serbia establishing a Strategic Partnership on sustainable raw materials, battery value chains and electric vehicles. The Commission continues discussions with Serbia on the topic”.

Bernsel clarifies that this is part of “a broader effort, that includes the EU  mining and processing critical raw materials within its own borders in over 900 projects, as well as the creation of partnerships across the globe”.

”If signed, this would be the 14th strategic partnership on raw materials signed by the EU with its partners”, she says.

According to the official data, the EU has such a partnership with the following partners: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, DR Congo, Greenland, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Norway, Rwanda, Ukraine and Zambia.

“Securing the supply of sustainable energy, materials and technologies is essential to tackle climate change and strengthen the resilience of strategic ecosystems, while preserving the competitiveness of our economies. Opening a dialogue on possible closer cooperation along the CRM and EV value chains builds on our deep and long-standing relationship underlined by the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), existing economic ties against the background of Serbia’s candidacy for EU membership”, Johanna Bernsel concludes.

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