The foreign ministers of the European Community split over the adoption of joint economic sanctions against South Africa early today, agreeing instead on the symbolic gesture of summoning their ambassadors home from Pretoria "for consultations."

The ministers of the 10 member countries, plus Spain and Portugal, spent four hours debating how to protest South Africa's racial policies and its reaction to recent violence.

The meeting, held while the European ministers were here for a commemoration of the 1975 Helsinki accords, showed divisions in Europe on how to deal with the politically and economically sensitive subject of South Africa's system of apartheid, or racial segregation.

The South African government attempted to play down the EC move, issuing a brief statement denying that the recall had any political meaning, correspondent Glenn Frankel reported from Johannesburg. The Department of Foreign Affairs cited "discussions" with an unnamed "official European Community spokesman" on the action.

Several ministers here said the final result was a compromise that had involved concessions on all sides.

"A common position implies suggestions and concessions made by the whole delegation," said French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas.

Britain and West Germany have taken public stances against sanctions, which they say are not effective in bringing about change. France and Belgium have pushed for a tougher response, particularly since France unilaterally decided late last month to recall its ambassador from Pretoria.

The strongest of the measures agreed on jointly by the community involves the return to Europe this summer of the community's ambassadors to South Africa for "consultations" in preparation for another foreign ministers' meeting on Sept. 10.

The word "summon" apparently was chosen over the word "recall" after lengthy debate. As diplomats explained it, the formula allows each country to decide whether to send its envoy back to South Africa.

At a press conference today, British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe made a point of drawing a distinction between recall and summon. He said he had opposed sanctions, because "we do not believe we are likely to advance the process of change by applying economic sanctions."

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said later in London that the ambassador will return for the meeting, "but he will be returning to South Africa. It is my view that he should be able to report from there."

The ministers' statement condemned the state of emergency declared in South Africa and the failure of the white-minority government to pursue talks with black leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu.

The ministers also asked for an inventory of measures and guidelines already used by individual countries to control South African investments and to draw up further measures that could be taken to "contribute to the abolition of apartheid." These measures are to be considered at the Sept. 10 meeting.

West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said at a press conference it is important that the community establish a "political strategy with a clear aim." He said, "We must not jump from one special step to another."

Genscher, noting that his country and Britain shared a "principled attitude" on sanctions, said the decision to summon the envoys is an "important political symbol."

France took the decision to recall its ambassador three days after a previous European Community meeting had agreed on calling on South Africa to lift its state of emergency. "When we met on July 22, I said France was not satisfied," Dumas said at the time. "We made several suggestions at the time that were not taken. So France took its own initiative."

Today, Dumas said "progress" had been made among the members of the Common Market since then. "England and Germany have made concessions in our direction and not without pain," he said.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, whose country now heads the EC Commission, said, "There are certain reservations among the member states against economic measures against South Africa."