Serbia's parliament speaker seeks debate over Rio Tinto's lithium project

Illustration shows Rio Tinto logo

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's parliament speaker and former prime minister Ana Brnabic on Monday sought a debate and approval in the assembly for a contested Rio Tinto lithium project in the Balkan country.

Regarded as a critical material by the EU and the United States, lithium is used in batteries for EVs and mobile devices.

In 2022, the Serbian government revoked licences for Rio's $2.4 billion Jadar lithium project near the western town of Loznica after massive environmental protests.

Brnabic, also a ranking official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) loyal to President Aleksandar Vucic, said the Jadar project requires "responsible and serious" parliamentary debate".

"We will defend the interests of Serbia in every way, both economic and in terms of wealth and higher wages, pensions and everything that the project can bring to Serbia," she said in a TV broadcast.

Brnabic did not say when the 250-seat Serbian parliament in which the SNS-led coalition has a majority of 183 deputies, could start the debate.

Her remarks came a day after Vucic told the Financial Times that Belgrade is preparing to give Rio Tinto the green light to develop Europe's largest lithium mine.

If completed, the Jadar project could supply 90% of Europe's current lithium needs and help to make the company a leading lithium producer.

Last week Rio published environmental studies which showed that its Serbia lithium project would be safe for the environment.

In 2021 and 2022 Serbian environmentalists collected 30,000 signatures in a petition demanding that parliament enact legislation to halt lithium exploration in the country.

Radomir Lazovic, a leader of the opposition Green-Left Front, said his party would oppose Rio's project in the parliament and through protests.

"We are ready to fight this idea through actions, protests, all legal avenues and by seeking international support," Lazovic told Reuters.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Angus MacSwan)