Is it true European cinema -- not just French or Italian or British -- only 10 years away?

Some veteran students of film think so, and for instant proof they point to the first European Economic Community film festival running at the American Film Institute Theater through Feb. 23.

"There is already a good deal of financial crossover," observed Michael Webb, former AFI program director who helped put together the series. "You have Italian and French or Italian and German co-productions, and it won't be long before this spreads to all phases."

Perhaps the prime example is West Germany's "The Glass Cell," showing Friday at 8:30 and Saturday at 6:15. Adapted from a novel by the British Patricia Highsmith (very big in Germany these days), it stars Brigette Fossey, one of France's most sought-after actresses, who by the way has also appeared in Robert Altman's "Quintet" and the Italian film "Blue Country."

Fossey will be here Friday to introduce the German picture.

Another visitor will be the Italian director Ettore Scola, known to Washingtonians best for "We All Loved Each Other So Much," a rueful comedy that played here forever. He will appear with his new comedy, "The Terrace," starring Mastroianni, Trintignant, Gassman, Ugo Tognazzi and Stefania Sandrelli, Feb. 11 at 8:15. It also plays Feb. 14 at 6:15.

Irish director Kieran Hickey will introduce his new pictures, "Criminal Conversation" and "Exposure" Feb. 5 at 6:30. Hickey is a rarity: a filmmaker working in a country that has no film industry to speak of.

He is one of a new generation of film artists who work on their own with what money they can scrape together from friends or the odd grant, striving always to create a film statement that is personal and yet of broad enough interest to attract distributors.

One such is Peter K. Smith, whose 1974 picture, "A Private Enterprise," shows here Feb. 9 at 9 p.m. This is very much a European film, telling with charm and high humor the struggles of a small-time Indian entrepreneur in London, selling his gimcrack plaster Indian elephants out of a suitcase. His story is that of so many Third World immigrants who try to cope with the creaking social structure of the Old World.

When the young man is picked up by a chic English girl, he fails to understand that to her he is, like his ridiculous elephants, merely an exotic knickknack.

Tonight's film is "Rataplan," at 6:30, a mostly silent farce about a goofy nonconformist along the lines of Chaplin in "Modern Times" and the brick-footed Tati of "Mr. Hulot's Holiday." The deadpan nut case played by director Maurizio Nichetti himself invariably sets people to talking about Buster Keaton, which along should be enough to start a rush on the Kennedy Center box office.

One thing you won't see in this series is a film that knocks one EEC country of another, as Webb observed, and this means no war movies. Still, there are plenty of other subjects that demonstrate the cultural vitality and diversity of Europe.

Other major entries in the festival, sponsored by the EEC delegation here, are: "Other People's Money" (Feb. 2 at 8:30 and Feb. 6 at 6:30) from France, with Trintignant and Catherine Deneuve, voted the best French film of the year; "Johnny Larsen" (Feb. 7 at 5), a highly praised Danish picture about a young man starting out in the world as a worker; Ken Loach's "The Gamekeeper" (Feb. 12 at 6:30), a British class study; "Idlers of the Fertile Valley" (Feb. 15 at 5), a Greek prizewinner that has been compared to Luis Bunuel's mordant social commentary.

From the Netherlands comes "Melancholy Tales" (Feb. 17 at 6:30), four short stories by the Dutch writer Heere Heeresma. The Belgian movie, "Home Sweet Home" (Feb. 19 at 6:30), is yet another comedy about revolutionaries, apparently the only safe way to handle subversive thoughts on film.

An unconfirmed West German entry is "Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness" (Feb. 20 at 6:30 and Feb. 21 at 7), directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Should this not arrive in time, another Von Trotta movie will be shown, the strongly feminist "A Free Woman."