While Western European leaders talk about the benefits and difficulties of transnational political unity, the important and little-remarked reality is that their countries are rapidly moving toward a powerful technological unity.

The key to this amalgamation is the loveless, nonetheless very convenient, convergence of French aspirations for free space between East and West; West German fears of political isolation, and the wealth and skills of both nations. Together, the two are the organizers and the main paymasters for Europe's increasingly robust presence all along the spectrum that runs from esoteric basic research to high-technology industry.

After a month of visiting over a score of Western Europe's major scientific and Industrial research centre, as well as talking to officials of government research ministries, what I find most striking is the absence of the defeatist mood that is now so prevalent in the American research and development enterprise. Any snapshot of what's really happening on the two continents would, of coursee, show that by almost any measure and in virtually all technical fields, the United States is outspending and outperforming all of Europe. But closer examination would also suggest that the United States has slipped into the role of the rich, risk-shunning pennywatcher, while Europe is showing considerable bounce, maybe a touch of free-spending megalomania, in its new-found romance with research and far-out industry.

Furthermore, as Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, recently told a congressional committee, West Germany does little military research, while possibly "the very best of our physical scientists and the veery best of our engineers are siphoned off into the military R&D [research and development] enterprise . . ."

With their combined slices of gross national product that are devoted to R&D now just a touch behind what the United States spends, Franch and Germany's research managers often tend to think big - which is increasingly rare among their American counter-parts. French space officials, for example, have been whispering to their European partners in the French-led Ariane launch-vehicle program that the still-unflown rocket could eventually be upgraded for manned flight. "Possible, but ridiculous," was the comment of a space official in the West German ministry of research and technology. But he conceded that, indeed, it might happen, adding that "space activities have a beneficial effect on all kinds of industry."

It was this rationale that led Germany to take the lead role in building the manned research module - Space-lab - that will ride aboard NASA's space shuttle. The costs have inevitably run ahead of the original estimates, and some partners, particularly Italy, have been grousing. But, with an attitude reminiscent of NASA's go-go days, the Germans and the French are taking the position that the industrial and systems know-how that are being acquired in the process are worth the price.

With a population of over 60 million occupying a land mass the size of Oregon, the West Germans take very seriously the notion that the nurturing of science is essential to their prosperity. Thus, Germany not only pays its dues into the huge particle-accelerator ("atom smashing") laboratory that all of Europe supports near Geneva, but has built and operates a similar laboratory of its own, near Hamburg, as well. To finance its share of the Geneva facility, the British simply closed down their own accelerators. "That would be unthinkable," a Germany research administrator told me. "It's important to join in the international effort, but it's also important to have our own facilities."

Researchers at the Hamburg laboratory are from oil over the world, including a batch from the People's Republic of China. But, for the Germans, there is pride as well as economic sense in building and running something as complex as a particle accelerator. "The demands that it makes on industrial suppliers are enormous," an administrator explained. "The country gets a lot out of building a machine like this." He also made reference to the little-spoken-of underside of European technical and industrial collaboration: Everything usually costs more and takes longer when more than one country is involved. In the international brotherhood of particle physicists, the German accelerator is known for the efficiency of its operations; the Geneva machine, run by 11 nations, is much admired, but not for nimbleness of administration.

Whatever the problems involved in orchestrating Europe's multinational technical efforts, the countries are getting quite good at it - particularly through use of the American-originated "single-manager" system, in which a clearly defined boss agency runs the show. Thaths what they have been doing in space, commercial aviation, nuclear-fuel production and various other fields. And it's been done against a background of relatively ample resources and high ambitions. As one of the chiefs of Germany's leading laser research laboratories remarked to me, "Money isn't the problem.We just can't find enough of the trained people that we need" - a lament not often heard today on the American research scene.

What emerges from a look at Europe's research and industrial enterprises is that while the politicians talk about unity, their nations are being technologically stitched together in ways that mean agreat deal more than any political compacts.