DUBLIN, JUNE 25 -- The leaders of the European Community agreed in principle tonight to provide economic assistance to the Soviet Union but stopped short of committing themselves to a specific program or price tag.

By agreeing to authorize an EC study of the Soviet Union's economic needs, the leaders struck a compromise between the position of West Germany and France, who pressed for a major commitment of resources to bail out Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and that of Britain and several smaller EC members, who opposed such a plan.

The two sides disputed the meaning of the compromise tonight. EC and French officials said that by authorizing the study, the leaders were committing themselves to some kind of aid, while British officials denied any commitment had been made. The British position is closer to that of the United States, which has been wary of making major aid commitments to the Soviets.

Western leaders will try to resolve these differences at next month's summit meeting in Houston of the leaders of the seven major industrialized nations.

A compromise also appeared to be emerging on the question of lifting Western Europe's economic sanctions against South Africa. Community leaders were expected to issue a statement voicing support for South African President Frederik W. de Klerk's program of political reforms but insisting that the measures must go further toward dismantling white domination before sanctions can be removed.

The leaders also approved plans to further political and economic union among the 12 member states by scheduling a series of meetings culminating in a conference in Rome in December to finalize the unity proposals. The conference will be convened despite the deep differences that remain between Britain and most of the EC over the amount of national sovereignty each of the members would be willing to sacrifice.

A common foreign policy has been one of the key goals that the EC members have been seeking to reach in recent months to demonstrate unity. But today's meeting here, the opening session of a two-day summit, illustrated just how far the states remain from that ideal.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to Dublin carrying a letter from Gorbachev in which the Soviet leader outlined anew some of his country's pressing economic problems and made a general plea for support, according to officials here.

Kohl sought a European commitment, which some officials put at $15 billion, to aid the Soviet Union both to rescue Gorbachev and to ease Soviet opposition to the pending unification of East and West Germany under NATO.

He enlisted the support of French President Francois Mitterrand and European Commission President Jacques Delors before coming here, and many observers expected them to push a proposal through this meeting.

Instead, they have run up against a wall of reluctance and questions about how such an aid plan would work and who would pay for it.

West German officials said that because of these doubts, Kohl had decided to seek an agreement in principle that EC members could take to the Houston economic summit next month, rather than a specific commitment for an aid fund.

"Kohl is not going to tell the others what to do," a senior West German official said. "He'll tell them what we are doing, urge them to provide help in their particular ways and perhaps find a way of combining and coordinating their positions."

Kohl described in a closed session his government's commitment of about $3 billion in loan guarantees to private banks prepared to lend money to Moscow, according to officials present. Another specific proposal discussed today was a Dutch suggestion that European companies become engaged in extracting and selling oil and natural gas from the Soviet Union, using their own expertise and equipment and making royalty payments to the Soviets. No price tag was put on the proposal.

Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands all reportedly expressed doubts about the wisdom of providing economic aid to the Soviet Union. "We're all in favor of helping the Soviet Union. The question is not whether, the question is how," said a British official. "We just don't happen to believe that writing a check and pouring money into a system in need of major reforms is the solution. It may in fact make things worse."

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who already has lifted Britain's sanctions on investment in South Africa, wanted the EC leaders to do the same to send a signal of encouragement to de Klerk. But Thatcher did not make a formal proposal here for fear it would be defeated by the Dutch and Irish, who oppose any relaxation of sanctions at present.

Instead, the British have supported a compromise that would send a strong message of sympathy to the white South African leader while making no commitment on sanctions.

Officials said Thatcher recognized it would be impossible for the EC to lift any sanctions at a time when black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela is touring the United States and Europe urging that all punitive measures be maintained.

Observers said that despite the disagreements, the tone of today's session was generally friendly.

But at one point, they said, Thatcher and Mitterrand clashed over their degree of dependence on West German economic policy. Thatcher chided Mitterrand for following the West German lead saying, "That's why your unemployment is so high." The French president retorted, "You didn't -- that's why your inflation is so high."