Serbia wants to hold further talks with Rio Tinto about its proposed lithium project in the country, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Wednesday, stressing that the public should be consulted over whether it goes ahead.

After environmental protests in January 2022, Belgrade revoked licences for the Anglo-Australian miner’s $2.4bn Jadar lithium project in western Serbia. If the project ever goes into operation, it could supply 90% of Europe’s current lithium needs.

Vucic told Reuters reporters on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos that he had a “difficult conversation” with representatives of Rio Tinto on Wednesday.

“We are facing the question of whether the company will file a lawsuit against us or not. I asked them not to take measures to protect their interests,” he told Serbian reporters.

Throughout 2021 and 2022, Serbian environmentalists collected 30,000 signatures for a petition demanding that parliament enact legislation to halt lithium exploration in Serbia. The nation is already one of the largest polluters in Europe and environmental activists have warned that the mining project will cause even more pollution.

Vucic added: “(Rio) must offer the cleanest solutions, which could be satisfactory to our people, the highest standards in the world for the nature and the people who will work there.”

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By GlobalData

In an email response seen by Reuters, a Rio Tinto spokesman said: “We continue to believe the Jadar project … could act as a catalyst for the development of other industries and tens of thousands of jobs for current and future generations in Serbia.”

Lithium is a vital component of electric vehicle (EV) batteries and is therefore considered a critical mineral in the energy transition. However, at present, Portugal is the only EU member state to mine and process lithium.

In 2020 Portugal produced 900 tonnes of lithium but local miners sell their output almost exclusively to the ceramics industry. Nevertheless, they want to start producing higher-quality lithium that can be used in EV batteries.