Western European nations are planning to pool their resources to catch up with the United States and Japan in the fast-growing industries of computers and automation.
Under study by the 10-nation European Community (EC) is a plan to pour $1.5 billion in research funds into these industries over the next five years.
At the heart of the plan is the idea that companies in the 10 nations, which often see themselves as commercial rivals, should cooperate to explore fundamental concepts that can be used in the products of the future.
Officials in the EC's Brussels headquarters say that sharing work in this way is the one mechanism by which the countries of Europe can hope to compete with nations now calling the tune in high technologies.
Assuming that the national governments of the 10 nations ratify the plan later this year, some projects should start in January.
The plan is called ESPRIT, ''European Strategic Program for Research in Information Technology.'' Five areas of technology are earmarked for funds, half of which would come from member nations of the Community with the rest from private industry. The areas are: new techniques for making integrated circuits; computer software; advanced information processing; office automation; and new factory machinery such as robots and computerized machine tools.
Unifying European efforts in high technology is not a new idea. Over the past 15 years, governments have tried to foster mergers or, at the least, common aims among Europe's electronics and computer firms. But these attempts have had little success.
According to officials in Brussels, however, the mood among West European companies is now different. ''It has taken a long while for firms to see the advantages of collaboration,'' said one civil servant working on the project. ''Also, the recession has forced industry to cut back on research and firms realize it is better to share the work than not do it at all.''
Bolstering this viewpoint is the fact that the officials in Brussels have won support for their plan from the top dozen electronics firms in Western Europe. Representatives from the likes of General Electric in Britain, Thomson-Brandt in France, Siemens of Germany, Olivetti of Italy, and Philips of Holland have been frequent visitors to Brussels over the past couple of years to discuss with civil servants the finer points of the plan.
A key point is that EC officials will interfere with industry as little as possible. They will give precedence when deciding on funds to projects that involve the maximum collaboration between countries. Foreign-owned firms are not excluded as long as the results of the research are likely to benefit countries in the EC, for example through providing employment.
Other omens for ESPRIT look promising. Some 250 firms and research institutes submitted proposals for a series of pilot projects in electronics and automation that will pave the way for ESPRIT. The EC is putting up $11.5 million for these projects, with a similar sum coming from industry. The projects will begin next month.
The ESPRIT program is just one element of an ambitious long-term plan for research that is the brainchild of Etienne d'Avignon, the EC's commissioner for industry who has long been an apostle of West European unity.
He wants funds for research paid from the Community's coffers to rise from $ 450 million in 1983 to $1 billion in 1987. Besides projects in information technology, the funds would pay for research in less glamorous subjects, such as in mechanisms of corrosion catalysis, and membrane technology.
Such work, Mr. d'Avignon argues, would benefit the older industries in Europe , many of which are running into heavy competition from newly industrializing nations such as South Korea, Brazil, and Taiwan.