The financial difficulties of the European Community have begun to muffle the organization's once-budding collective voice on foreign-policy issues. This comes as the debate over the future of the NATO alliance, including whether Western Europe should have greater responsibility for its own defense, gathers steam.
For the second time in three months, leaders of the 10 EC countries last week failed to release to the outside world their traditional post-summit statements on foreign-policy questions - on East-West relations, the Middle East, and Central America - even though the declarations had been prepared by officials and approved by the leaders well before the two-day meeting ended.
The meeting, in fact, broke up in disarray. In 28 hours of talks, the leaders tried to agree on how the EC would be financed in the short to medium term. But they failed.
''We didn't think it was a good idea for a Community which had no recommendations to offer itself to send recommendations to others,'' said French President Francois Mitterrand, the current EC president.
At their previous summit - in Athens last December - the leaders had also failed to resolve their differences over financial issues, and for that reason, too, they had declined to speak out on foreign-policy questions at the end of the meeting.
Some analysts find the trend disquieting. They say it reflects an increasing tendency among Europeans to turn inward - despite repeated public calls for ''dialogue'' between East and West.
''The fact is,'' said Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, ''that to a large extent Europe today remains obsessed with its own problems. This is something that needs to be overcome.'' His country is due to join the EC in less than two years.
Some US officials, who have come to depend on European support for Reagan administration policy on many foreign-policy issues, also find the trend unsettling.
''The danger with this growing tendency to look inward,'' according to Lawrence Eagleburger, outgoing US undersecretary of state for political affairs, ''is that it may reenforce the potential negative consequences that can result from changing transatlantic perceptions of the world. . . .''
But for others, the present (and possibly temporary) reluctance of EC leaders to pronounce on foreign-policy issues, for whatever reason, can only be welcomed.
''The EC was established 26 years ago to develop a common market for intra-European trade, not to become another NATO,'' a senior EC official said. ''It should concentrate on the essentials.''
Observers point out that even when they can agree in principle to speak together, the EC countries often have a tough time agreeing on what to say - beyond mere platitudes. Ireland's neutrality has complicated things. So has Greece's keen interest in maintaining good relations with the Soviet Union.
Getting the EC's finances in order may in the long run encourage leaders within the Community framework to regain their collective voice on foreign-policy questions, some observers say. But coordination will still be a problem.
''The convergence of views (among West European countries) is only at an embryonic stage, as Western Europe's disarray over the Korean airline disaster last September showed,'' said Simon May, a research fellow of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. ''And it is unlikely to be a merely temporary phenomenon nurtured by anxiety about the philosophy and apparent unpredictability of just one US president. Its roots lie deeper.''