What does the European Commission say about lithium mining in Serbia?

Regarding the latest claims by the London’s Financial Times about the possible opening of a lithium mine in Serbia with the involvement of the European Union, Johanna Bernsel, spokesperson for the European Commission for the Internal Market, told European Western Balkans that the EU remains committed to entering into a strategic partnership on critical raw materials with Serbia.

Our interlocutor explains that this partnership would be based on a Letter of Intent signed last September by EC Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić. As specified by the European Commission for EWB, if such an initiative is implemented, it will be the 14th strategic partnership the EU has established with countries in the field of critical raw materials. The official EC portal states that the countries with which the Union has strategic partnerships in this field include, among others, Argentina, the Congo, Norway, and Kazakhstan. Bernsel emphasizes that the European Union advocates for the mining of critical raw materials “in accordance with the regulatory framework and practices that comply with EU environmental protection rules. The EU remains committed to entering into a strategic partnership with Serbia, which contributes to the creation of a sustainable and competitive e-mobility ecosystem and the establishment of a framework for ensuring a secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials to the European Union,” they added in a comment for EWB.

“It’s up to national governments to make decisions about specific industrial projects”

When asked to comment on the statement by the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić, reported by the Financial Times, that it appears “the new guarantees from Rio Tinto and the EU are a response to Serbia’s concerns,” the EC spokesperson told our portal: “We do not comment on specific projects, which includes comments made by President Vučić. It is up to national governments to make decisions about specific industrial projects and create economic opportunities,” Bernsel stated.

The President of Serbia told the London newspaper that as long as the requirements regarding “the entire value chain plus perfect environmental protection” are met, the lithium mine could be opened in 2028. At the same time, he stated that he expects that business and political leaders will come to Belgrade next month to make an official statement about the project.

Let us recall that in 2022, the authorities in Serbia revoked Rio Tinto Company’s permits for the Jadar Project, which would have involved the exploitation of lithium in our country. This decision was made after massive environmental protests.

What did Šefčovič and Vučić sign last year?

EC spokesperson stated for our portal that, based on the Letter of Intent signed by Serbia and the European Commission in September 2023, “the Commission proposes the conclusion of a Memorandum of Understanding between the EU and Serbia, which would establish a strategic partnership on sustainable raw materials, the battery value chain, and electric vehicles. The Commission continues discussions with Serbia on this topic.”

As Bernsel explains, this is part of the “broader EU efforts, which include mining and processing critical raw materials within its own borders, in over 900 projects, as well as creating partnerships worldwide.”

Johanna Bernsel recalls that on September 23, 2023, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić signed a Letter of Intent to work towards establishing a strategic partnership in the field of critical raw materials and electric vehicle value chains, “including materials, batteries, production, and recycling.”“Securing the supply of sustainable energy, materials, and technologies is essential to tackling climate change and strengthening the resilience of strategic ecosystems while maintaining the competitiveness of our economies. Initiating a dialogue on possible closer cooperation in the domain of critical raw materials and energy value chains is based on our deep and long-lasting partnership, highlighted by the Stabilization and Association Agreement and the existing economic ties established by Serbia’s candidacy for EU membership,” Johanna Bernsel points out.

The EC spokesperson claims that the dialogue on a strategic partnership between the EU and Serbia in the domain of critical raw materials and batteries “represents an important step towards establishing a sustainable and competitive e-mobility ecosystem in Serbia.” “At the same time, the signing of the Letter of Intent aligns with the EU’s strategy to develop a framework for ensuring a secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials, as expressed in the EC’s proposal for the Critical Raw Materials Act. The potential of several critical raw materials in Serbia, combined with the ambitious strategy to vertically integrate the e-mobility value chain, as well as the EU’s technological maturity and expertise concerning the entire value chain, including recycling and recovery, and the geographical proximity, form a solid basis for opening a dialogue on the partnership,” Bernsel specifies.

“The EU Critical Raw Materials Act provides for detailed oversight of all actions in projects”

When asked what the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), adopted by the European Council in March, practically entails and where Serbia fits in, the EC spokesperson told EWB that the goal is to “establish a diverse, secure, and sustainable supply of critical raw materials for the EU industry.”

“This law came into effect on May 23, 2024, and it applies to the member states of the European Union. As a candidate country for membership, Serbia would need to adopt the EU’s legal framework, including this law, after joining the Union. Additionally, project proponents from third countries, such as Serbia before potentially joining the European Union, can apply for strategic project status as defined by the Critical Raw Materials Act, provided they meet the appropriate criteria,” Bernsel indicates.

Johanna Bernsel explains that the CRMA stipulates that a project can be declared strategic if it meets the following criteria: it contributes to the security or strengthening of the resilience of the EU’s supply of strategic raw materials; it is technically feasible and implemented sustainably, particularly regarding monitoring, prevention, and minimization of environmental impact, as well as preventing and minimizing negative social impacts; and it is mutually beneficial for both the third country and the EU, bringing additional value to both.

“In assessing whether a project contributes to the security of the EU’s supply, the Commission will also evaluate who controls the activities related to the project. Therefore, project proponents will need to provide detailed information regarding the control of processes when applying,” the EC spokesperson notes.

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