Europeans join forces on `Eureka' research. Now 17 nations are talking about rival to US `star wars' project

When Archimedes discovered a way to determine the purity of gold, he is supposed to have exclaimed, ``Eureka.'' Today when Europeans exclaim, ``Eureka,'' they are referring to a program they hope will prove an alternative to America's ``star wars'' research program -- and an answer to their own high-tech woes.

At a meeting here that ended yesterday, government ministers from 17 European nations agreed on broad outlines for a research drive that would coordinate new and existing research projects in such fields as supercomput- ers, robotics, biotechnology, and telecommunications.

They also pledged significant sums of money. France promised $116 million for next year and West Germany vowed to spend as much $104 million.

Such pledges show how far the program has come in a short time. When French President Franois Mitterrand initially proposed Eureka three months ago, the response was skeptical at best.

Another French dream, some said; another European bureaucratic monster, others complained.

Then to everyone's surprise, the program gathered momentum.

French officials lobbied the Germans with the argument that the project was crucial to French-German relations.

As West Germany's interest in President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as ``star wars,'' seemed to wane, the officials say, these efforts made Eureka appear more attractive.

The French also took care to make their program politically palatable. In contrast to ``star wars,'' they labeled Eureka a civilian program. Of course, many of the research areas will overlap with the American research program.

But the civilian label permits France to draw on the prevailing European desire to improve its high-tech competitiveness with Japan and the US while gaining maximum support from European countries which are averse to military spending. In this way neutral countries such as Finland, Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland are able to participate.

At the same time, the French did not force a choice between participating in Eureka or star wars. Officials say companies are welcome to take contracts from both programs.

Giovanni Agnelli, chairman of Italy's Fiat, said this week his company would participate in both projects.

The final element of the French lobbying effort was to assuage fears about excessive bureaucracy. Instead of government agencies overseeing the research, officials here emphasize that private corporations will be in control. Instead of government agencies deciding on research projects, the officials say, corporations will propose what they want to research. These guarantees proved decisive in gaining British support.

Support from the usually reticent British underlined the success of this week's inaugural meeting. There was a general optimism about the program's ability to improve existing links between European companies, and in the process boost European competitiveness in high-tech markets.

To prove that this optimism represents more than words, officials pointed to agreements already signed, such as those linking French and Norwegian companies in producing high-powered scientific computers, and French and Italian companies in integrated circuits.

Still, high hurdles remain. No one knows exactly what Eureka will encompass, what criteria will be applied to individual projects, what will be the final mix of public and private financing, or even what type of administrative structure will be set up to coordinate the project. These questions are to be discussed at a meeting scheduled in West Germany this October. 30{et

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