In the spotlight: Europe’s resource-rich countries

The Critical Raw Materials Act proposed by the European Commission provides – in addition to recycling – for the reactivation and expansion of mining in Europe. What does this mean for resource-rich European countries? How do their civil societies feel about the run on raw materials on their doorstep? Three views from Serbia, Sweden and Ukraine.

Mirko Popović, Program Director at the Renewable and Environmental Regulatory Institute, Belgrade

Illustration: Zwei Personen spielen Schach mit Rohstoffen

«The Serbian government is not strategically focused on improving its position in the global competition for access to raw materials. Rather, the government’s strategy appears to be to promote Serbia as a country with favorable conditions for the exploitation of raw minerals, with weak competition rules and lax environmental regulations, cheap labor and generous subsidies. So mining won’t be making Serbia more independent of raw material imports, but rather more dependent on multinational companies and foreign partners.

The situation in the Bor mining region is of particular concern. There, the Chinese company Zijin is mining copper, bypassing Serbian law and environmental regulations, and being supported in this by authorities and politicians. The authorities are unable to apply the EU environmental rights and obligations that Serbia has already adopted. The development of Rio Tinto’s lithium mining project in Serbia to date has similarly shown that the Serbian government neither applies environmental protection measures in a precautionary manner, nor is it interested in a dialogue with stakeholders. Raw materials produced in Serbia, such as copper, are exported, so mining here secures access to raw materials for powerful partners such as China.

Serbian law does nothing to prevent the violation of human rights such as the right to life, health, property and an intact environment. Under the Serbian mining and geological research act, private property can be expropriated for the benefit of private investors, as it defines the exploitation of natural resources such as oil and gas, coal, copper, gold and lithium as being in the public interest. Given these weaknesses in the legal framework and a lack in capacity for the enforcement of the laws that do exist, what can we do? The only tools we have to prevent environmental damage from mining are ESG standards (frameworks for sustainability reporting), international standards for sustainable mining and, in future, the application of the EU taxonomy.»

Matti Blind Berg, Chairman of Girjas Sameby, a Sámi community in Sweden

Eine Person übergibt ein verpacktes Geschenk, in dem Bergbau betrieben wird

«We view the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) with great concern. There already are iron, copper and gold mines on a large scale in our area in northern Sweden. The mining takes place on the basis of Swedish mining law, which is one of the most enforceable areas of law in Sweden. If a mining company wants to open a mine, its chances of getting its way are very good. We can object, of course, but we can virtually never prevent a mine from opening.

For our community of reindeer herders, mining has devastating consequences. We do not benefit, even though the mining takes place in our region. The profits go elsewhere. We just suffer the losses: our land rights, our unspoilt landscape, our healthy environment. That is why we view the Critical Raw Materials Act with such concern. There is no doubt that the green transformation of the European economy requires raw materials – but it is not truly green if it does not take the living conditions of the indigenous communities who live in the resource-rich regions into account. We need these raw materials only to a small extent, but we do depend on intact nature. The Arctic region in particular is very sensitive, its ecosystem easily disturbed.

Mining requires roads, buildings, energy. This infrastructure fragments the space we consider our home. We have attempted to bring our position into the CRMA process but to no avail so far. It would be very important, however, for the directive to take the concerns of the indigenous peoples into account. We also want for the European Parliament to put pressure on the Swedish government to finally sign the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169 of 1989, which establishes the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries. If Sweden were to sign this convention, it would also have a major impact on how the CRMA will be implemented here. It would give us more of a say and take away some of our concerns.»

Viktoria Kovalenko, Consultant at the Dixi-Group think tank, Kiev

«I regard the prospect of increased mining activity in Ukraine as rather positive, given the way mining projects are carried out in Europe. Environmental impact assessments and the application of best industry practices mitigate negative impacts. Ukraine has a number of untapped deposits of critical raw materials, covering a total of 22 of the 34 minerals classified as critical by the EU. So it is necessary to plan for and implement new mining projects. Transparency in the procedures is of great importance. The EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Ed.) standards could serve as a ‘golden rule’ here. They have already been implemented at the legislative level and provide for mandatory publication of agreements.

The exploitation of critical raw materials in Europe offers two main advantages to Ukraine. For one, after the war with Russia, the energy system will have to be rebuilt. The plan is to rely on renewable energies. This would necessitate decentralized generation capacities, which would trigger demand for products, technologies and the corresponding raw materials. Secondly, the exploitation of our resources will reduce dependence on imports from autocracies such as China and Russia in particular. Of course, increased mining activities also carry risks. Ukraine should therefore not present itself as a mere supplier of raw materials to the EU. Investments, partnerships and joint ventures must be used to develop processing and production facilities, create jobs and to boost the economy.

Our biggest challenge is still the war. Some of our deposits of critical raw materials are located near the front or are occupied by Russia. Martial law stipulates that no information about raw material deposits be released. The government is already proposing a number of areas in safe regions for the development of extractive projects, however.»

Karte: Potenzial an kritischen Rohstoffressourcen in der EU
Potential of critical raw material resources within the EU. Source: European Commission, Data from EuroGeoSurveys combined with other EU data sources, Brussels 2020.

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