What is the connection between German politicians and Serbian lithium?

“We will not open a lithium mine until the Germans guarantee that we will have clean rivers and mountains,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, adding that it is necessary to start a dialogue about the exploitation of this strategically important resource.

The Serbian government revoked the regulation establishing the spatial plan for the special purpose area where lithium would be mined two years ago, following massive protests against the potential opening of a mine in the Jadar Valley.

At that time, then-Prime Minister Ana Brnabić stated “we have put an end to Rio Tinto in Serbia.” Four and a half years later, it seems that the end is no longer in place, and Brnabić now says that “opponents of lithium have slowed everything down,” asserting that Serbia, by “not exporting lithium but using it here” for battery production, will position itself to be “a European leader for the next 100 years.” She criticized those against lithium mining, claiming that their opposition is aimed at “destabilizing Serbia.” Vučić, on the other hand, claims that the halt on lithium mining in Serbia was “a chess move by Western intelligence services to stop our development.”

From End to Turnaround

The debate on Serbian lithium, which until now has been a clash between those who argue that the mine would irreversibly destroy nature and those who believe it would be a significant boost to the Serbian economy, has now taken on an important geopolitical dimension. The discussion on Serbian lithium was reignited following the adoption of the European Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), which mentions lithium from Serbia.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič signed a letter of intent to establish a strategic partnership between Serbia and the EU regarding the CRMA.

It became evident that this is not just an economic-ecological issue from an interview given to Serbian media by Tilman Kuban, a Bundestag member from the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) and the party’s rapporteur for Serbia, following his visit to Belgrade, where he met with Vučić and Ana Brnabić. Among numerous other topics, from football to China and Russia to Expo, this relatively unknown politician in Serbia also said the following:

“First of all, I can completely understand from Serbia’s perspective that everything in this project needs to be verified and fulfilled, but in the end, I see it as a huge opportunity for Serbia to send a message to Europe that we can count on you and that you don’t want to create problems but solve them. That is the key message in this project, and we will be very happy if there is cooperation with German companies that will invest here not only by using raw materials but also by producing batteries,” Kuban said.

Just a week later, Vučić called on Germany to act as a judge on the issue of lithium mining in Serbia, despite numerous Serbian scientists, individuals, and institutions, from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU) to the University of Belgrade, having already expressed their opinions on the matter.

From Merkel to Kuban: Germany’s Emerging Role in Serbia’s Lithium Debate

Why is Germany now emerging as a significant player in the lithium issue? Petar Ćurčić, a researcher at the Institute for European Studies, says that we should not forget that Germany has shown interest in the exploitation of lithium in Serbia ever since the issue was first raised a few years ago.

“In this context, the words of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her farewell visit to Serbia in September 2021 are very telling. When asked whether Germany was interested in Serbian lithium, given that the U.S. and China also show great interest, she replied, ‘When the whole world is interested, we are interested too. We have significant investments in Serbia’s automotive industry, and we know what lithium means for the development of batteries and future mobility. Serbia has something of real value. Of course, there are concerns about whether the exploitation will be carried out in accordance with ecological standards. The EU has good sustainability standards.’ So, the issue of ecological standards had already been raised by the former chancellor,” said Ćurčić.

In recent years, the relationship between the Serbian government and Germany has not been as good as the relationship Vučić had with Angela Merkel’s CDU (with which his SNS is also in the European People’s Party). Tilman Kuban’s visit and his statements can be viewed in this light. Although Kuban is not a particularly well-known politician, his message might carry weight, especially since his CDU has a good chance of returning to power in the next elections, given that it currently has the highest ratings in Germany.

Petar Ćurčić explains that Kuban represents a faction within the CDU close to party leader Friedrich Merz, but he also supported Bavarian Premier Markus Söder as a candidate for chancellor in the 2021 elections.

Germany’s Geopolitical Interest, China and the USA

Although relations between Berlin and Belgrade have cooled since Angela Merkel’s departure, economic cooperation and the implementation of strategic projects and policies have continued without interruption, observes Ćurčić. On the other hand, among the louder critics of Belgrade’s policies in Germany have been representatives of the Greens, who are coalition partners in the government, and after the federal elections in 2025, they could continue to play a significant role in the country’s political life, thereby maintaining their strong influence on environmental policies at the German and European levels, he adds.

“We should not overlook the fact that despite the disagreements in relations between Belgrade and Berlin, Germany (as the leading economy of the EU) perceives itself and its power precisely through the policy of green transformation. The exploitation of lithium, therefore, plays an important role, as does the application of ecological standards in all fields. Germany also has an important leverage, thanks not only to its foreign trade balance with Serbia and other Western Balkan countries but also because the Serbian industry is highly integrated into German production chains,” Ćurčić explains.

Currently, the EU is almost entirely dependent on lithium imports from Chile, the USA, China, and Russia, and the CRMA, which assigns a certain role to Serbia as an EU candidate, was adopted to reduce this dependence. According to an analysis by Standard and Poor’s, based on existing plans, the goal is for European lithium processing capacity to reach 650,000 metric tonnes annually by 2028, with more than 20 mining and processing projects currently in development.

“The growth of the European domestic lithium industry comes amid increasing concerns about a possible global shortage of materials necessary for the production of lithium-ion batteries, including lithium, graphite, copper, cobalt, and nickel. By 2027, the global lithium deficit could reach 4,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate, with annual global demand at 1.87 million metric tons, up from 884,000 metric tons in 2023,” the analysis states, adding that in Europe, the shortage could be exacerbated by the rising demand for electric vehicles, projected to grow by 27% between 2023 and 2027.

The CRMA envisions that at least 10% of the critical materials supply chain should be mined in the EU, at least 40% processed in the EU, and at least 25% of recycled materials should come from within the Union. It also stipulates that the EU should not import more than 65% of its annual consumption.

Germany’s interest in Serbian lithium is not only economic but also geopolitical. Germany, through its economic influence, gains significant levers of political influence, as demonstrated by the example of Serbia and other Balkan countries. When it comes to critical resources, it is part of a much broader geopolitical game in which the main players are the USA and China, whose relations have been tense for years. In this context, Germany faces significant competition from China and Asia, not only in the automotive industry.

“The federal government in Berlin has designated China as a ‘partner, rival, and systemic competitor’ in several of its strategic documents. Economically, there is an ambivalent stance because China is one of Germany’s largest trading partners but also a major competitor threatening to undermine Germany’s positions in the international economy,” Ćurčić points out.

He notes that, given Washington’s policy of reducing dependence on China in critical technologies for several years now, official Berlin will also try to encourage its industrialists to shift their industrial capacities from China to ASEAN countries, Turkey, as well as the Western Balkans and Central Europe.

In the development of new supply chains (since the old ones have been disrupted not only by relations with China but also by the war in Ukraine), Serbia will gain a new role. German media have also criticized China’s role in the exploitation of raw materials in Serbia, particularly due to the open question of adherence to environmental standards. There is no doubt that the implementation of German standards for environmentally sustainable production in foreign countries will also increase German influence not only in technological but also in economic, financial, and political aspects,” he believes.

“When it comes to lithium, the Serbian government’s stance is considered pro-Western, but there is a debate whether this represents development or is a confirmation of Serbia’s colonial status. The opposition parties (in Serbia) now risk being portrayed as not supporting the West or modernization (if they are against lithium mining). The government, with its radical residues, wants to present itself as a modernizing force, calling those who are against lithium not traitors but grand traitors”, says Zoran Panović, Demostat’s Programme Director.  

Thus, certain pro-European opposition forces could find themselves in a difficult position where, if they oppose lithium exploitation, they might come into conflict with EU policy and their own programmes, where EU membership is one of the main goals. On the other hand, if they agree with the exploitation, they could be labeled as government collaborators. As an example of how this could look was shown when the Speaker of the National Parliament, Ana Brnabić, said that of the entire opposition, “only Dragan Đilas was fair enough to stand by what the government did from 2001 to 2012, when it brought Rio Tinto to Serbia, gave them exploration and exploitation rights, and to admit that lithium is a development opportunity for Serbia.”

(NIN, 02.07.2024)


This post is also available in: Italiano

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