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The Serbian Mine Protests: Good for the Goose, but What About the Gander?

by Jelena Radaković, University College Dublin


Last week saw large protests in Belgrade and other cities and towns across Serbia. However, unlike other European cities in recent weeks and months, these protests were not related to Covid-19 restrictions, or the specific issue of mandatory vaccination.


The protests in Serbia were about a whole other crisis, or, perhaps, series of crises. Serbians took to the streets as issues around private property, the environment and foreign direct investment all came to the fore following the Government’s adoption of amendments to (1) the Law of Expropriation, allowing for a swifter transfer of property rights should it be deemed to be in the public interest (and greatly expanding the notion of 'public interest'); and (2) the Law on Referendum, making it more difficult and restrictive for citizens to exercise their right to protest. Specifically, the so-called ‘public interest’ that protesters did not support related to the proposed lithium and copper mining projects by the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto, and the Chinese company, Zijin.


The proposed 2.4 billion USD development of the Rio Tinto lithium mine project ‘Jadar’ involves what is thought to be one of the biggest lithium reserves in Europe. Its strategic benefits to Serbia, and indeed the European Union (EU), are undeniable; the potential levels of revenue and job creation are significant, given the current and projected increasing demand for lithium-powered batteries as European climate and energy policy drives the switch away from fossil fuels, in transport in particular. With China and Russia both having a significant amount of economic influence in Serbia, and both being major suppliers of lithium globally, it is clear why the EU would have an interest in this mine being developed.


However, question-marks remain about the overall environmental impact of the project. The extent of the impact is yet to be adequately assessed, and numerous controversies surround the project, including questions about the type of mining technology that will be used, already 'explored' land and its environmental impact, and the lack of building permits, to name just a few.

The protests we saw were no doubt political, but at the same time they crossed party-political lines, uniting citizens behind a very specific common goal that people wanted to achieve; something that is unusual in most countries, and even more so in Serbia. That common goal related to the issue of land/property appropriation for private profit, and it is one that resonates with Serbian citizens in particular. Additionally, the broader issue of the environment and the exceptional levels of pollution seen across Serbia have been gathering momentum and support for some time, and certainly contributed to the ill-feeling of protesters. But this is not the full story.


While the protests were ongoing, the EU committed to opening Cluster 4 at the Intergovernmental Conference with Serbia, covering four Chapters on Transport, Energy, Trans-European Networks and the Environment and Climate Change. The progress Serbia has made in its accession negotiations with the EU is more tangible with this latest opening of Cluster 4, or at least it seems that way in official terms. The EU enlargement process is supposed to guide the accession and candidate countries towards certain values and goals the EU itself is meant to have, be it judicial integrity and accountability, open and free speech, or indeed, environmental standards.


While continuous work on the accession negotiations is welcome, genuine change and progress behind it is what should count, but unfortunately, Serbia has seen slow movement in the right direction.


Environment or Enlargement?


The EU's Climate Action ambitions rest upon decreasing fossil-fuel dependency / increasing the levels of renewable energy, and driving massive cross-sector decarbonisation efforts, leading to a climate-neutral EU by 2050. In order to achieve this, actors across the entire economy need to be involved. With transport being the largest contributor to the EU's greenhouse gas emissions, the supply of electric vehicles has been identified as one of the ways in which the EU's citizens will contribute to delivering climate neutrality by 2050.


With demand for electric vehicles rising from 3.5% in 2019 to 11% in 2020, last September the European Commission placed lithium on its Critical Raw Materials strategy plan, noting that the EU would require 50 times its current levels of lithium by 2050.


Despite the scale of the anger among citizens in Serbia, the Commission's spokesperson, Ana Pisonero, expressed the EU's support for the Rio Tinto project, so long as the environmental standards are met:


"The Jadar project is a very good opportunity for the socio-economic development of Serbia provided it respects the highest environmental standards. The EU also supports Serbia in its efforts to attract EU partners and investments in view of creating a sustainable, vertically integrated critical raw materials and battery value chains".


Can we be certain, however, that this project will respect the highest environmental standards?


In recent years, Serbia has been nowhere near meeting its or the EU's environmental standards, with a number of reports showing that it is performing abysmally, consistently ranking among the lowest countries in terms of air quality, land and water pollution, health impacts and premature death. Weak statements from the EU, such as the comments made by Ms Ana Pisonero, do nothing but discourage people in Serbia and negatively impact their views on what the EU stands for. This further undermines their trust in the EU institutions and their values, and perpetuates the ruling party's disregard for the sustainable development Serbia desperately needs.


The need for a stronger EU stance was further highlighted on the 16th of December, as the European Parliament adopted a strongly worded Resolution on Serbia, expressing its deep concern about what MEPs identified as “serious problems with corruption and the rule of law in the environment area”, and “the general lack of transparency, and over the environmental and social impact assessments of infrastructure projects”, such as the Rio Tinto project.


Responding to the protests, and after further consideration, on 8th of December Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić sent the Law on Amendments to the Law on Expropriation back to the Parliament, noting legal issues with the law that could have the effect of violating property rights. The Law on Referendum adopted amendments in line with the demands of the protesters, scrapping the signature verification fees. A win for citizens, it would seem.


Normative Power EU


However, this whole saga is yet another example of how the ‘normative’ power of the EU is waning in Serbia. In one sense, with so many ongoing issues affecting the country, it is understandable if some areas of state behaviour slip through the cracks of EU alignment rigour. However, the EU should not allow itself to become complacent about how the accession and candidate countries perceive its values, as this could easily perpetuate apathy about the EU within these countries.


Demanding that the rule of law is fully adhered to, and EU environmental standards are implemented fully in the Rio Tinto development, followed by credible and verifiable environmental monitoring of the project, is essential to strengthen confidence in the EU’s credibility and its accession process.


How otherwise can we consider EU policy initiatives, such as the electrification of transport, to be credible when key parts of the supply chain cause serious environmental damage in non-EU countries? Climate policy must work to eliminate carbon emissions and poor environmental practices. Outsourcing them to other jurisdictions, particularly those neighbouring countries that are going through the enlargement process, is counter-productive.


The EU accession process must serve to adequately implement the EU acquis in soon-to-be EU Member States. Failure to do so, whether that be environmental policy, rule-of-law, competition law, or other fundamental freedoms, will undoubtedly be damaging to the long-term future of the European Union.


The views expressed in this blog reflect that of the author(s) and not necessarily that of IACES.

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