Vučić: The Jadar lithium mine could be opened in 2028

Serbia is preparing to give green light to Rio Tinto for the development of the biggest European lithium mine two years after Belgrade stopped the project, which would open the road toward a considerable stimulation for the electric vehicle industry on the continent, according to the Financial Times’ article titled “Serbia set to give green light to Rio Tinto lithium mine”.

Here is the Financial Times text in full:

President Aleksandar Vučić said that the “new guarantees” of the Anglo-Australian company and the EU seemed to be ready to respond to Serbia’s concerns about whether the necessary environmental standards would be fulfilled in the Jadar location. In an interview for the Financial Times, Vučić pointed out that he was convinced that the necessary guarantees of EU leaders for related investments in Serbia, such as the production of batteries and the production of electric vehicles, would be secured as well.

As long as the requests concerning “the entire value chain plus a perfect environmental protection” are met, Vučić said, it is expected that the business and political leaders will come to Belgrade next month for an official announcement about the project.

– If we fulfill it all, the mine might open in 2028 – he said and added that it was projected for it to produce 58,000 tons of lithium a year, which would be “sufficient for 17% of the production of electrical vehicles in Europe – around 1.1 million cars.”

Vučić added that he” truly believes that this could be a key change for Serbia and the entire region.”

The Serbian government revoked Rio Tinto’s permits in January 2022 following protests led by environmental groups concerned about the damage caused by the closure of the mining operations, water pollution, displacement of residents, and blockades of highways and bridges across Serbia. These protests coincided with a period when Vučić, who became Prime Minister in 2014 and President three years later, was facing elections and internal political pressure. However, after the municipal elections on June 02, where Vučić’s ruling party SNS won in most places, it appears that the government believes the “coast is clear” to resume the project.

The planned renewal of agreements with Rio Tinto and EU involvement is seen by Western officials as an important signal of Serbia’s geopolitical alignment at a time when it is economically and politically courted by China, Russia, and the Gulf countries. Serbia has been an EU candidate country for over a decade, but the accession process has been slow amid Brussels’ concerns over issues such as rule of law and corruption. Belgrade has also strained relations with the EU over the status of Kosovo and is one of the two European countries that have not imposed sanctions on Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine.

– EU officials thought we would give the mine to the Chinese. We had no intention of doing that because we promised to work with the EU – Vučić said.

Vučić, who insists on Serbia’s commitment to joining the EU bloc, claims that some European states tried to undermine the Jadar agreement.

– They even participated in organizing protests in Serbia… I wondered why they were doing that? They will lose everything and the Chinese will take their place – he said at the time.

Europe currently has practically no domestic lithium production, and Jadar would generate enough to meet 13% of the continent’s projected demand by 2030, according to Fastmarkets, a commodity research company.

– Jadar contains high-quality lithium and the mine deposits are large compared to others in the world – said Martin Baker, senior analyst at Fastmarkets.

Siniša Mali, the Finance Minister of Serbia, said the project would provide a significant boost to the Serbian economy, adding between 10 and 12 billion euros to the annual gross domestic product, which amounted to 64 billion euros in 2022. He noted that Serbia plans to ban the export of lithium and said that Serbia aims to “build a complete value chain”.

– Belgrade has always been in favor of the mine as long as it meets strict environmental standards – Mali said. The decision to suspend the project was partially a “political decision” to avoid unrests ahead of elections.

Savo Manojlović from the Kreni-Promeni movement, an environmental group that led protests at the end of 2021, said opponents of the mine will not give up the fight if the agreement is reinstated.

– We will organize to defend our environmental standards and constitutional rights – he said.

Chad Blevit, General Manager of Rio Tinto for the Jadar Project, said that, ever since the contract was terminated, Rio Tinto has held 125 discussions with the local community to gain public support.

The company, which published a draft environmental assessment on Thursday, which included assessments of potential impacts on water, air, and soil, will be “radically transparent” in its operations on the site, he said. Rio Tinto said it welcomes “fact-based public dialogue,” adding that the draft assessment indicates that the project could “safely develop and comply with the highest environmental standards of Serbia and the EU”.

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