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Europe moved a big step closer to achieving a common policy on asylum when proposals were made for a harmonised definition of refugee status that would apply in all 15 EU member states.

Fifty years after the Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, the latest plan is designed to draw together the work of all EU countries in dealing with the problems posed by mass migration.

Yesterday's initiative from Antonio Vitorino, the European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, is designed primarily to stop asylum "shopping" under which migrants select the country with the most advantageous laws.

If accepted, the proposal will also improve the success rates of some asylum-seekers in countries like Germany or France, where the laws are more restrictive than in the UK and most other EU countries.

Mr Vitorino said his proposal "deals with the most fundamental questions in the asylum field: 'who is a refugee?' and 'who is, otherwise, is need of international protection?'"

At a summit in Tampere, Finland, in 1999, the EU's heads of government agreed to forge a common asylum system, and work has progressed steadily.

But recent events have given the project fresh momentum and tensions between the UK and France over the Sangatte Red Cross refugee centre near Calais have highlighted the need for more cooperation at a European level.

David Blunkett, Britain's Home Secretary, was due to hold talks with his French counterpart last night in an effort to press for tighter security at France's Channel ports.

The French argue that the UK is too attractive a destination for asylum-seekers. Many try to enter the UK because they speak English or are drawn by a relatively favourable asylum regime, the presence of friends or relatives in the UK or because Britain – without identity cards – is an easier country in which to disappear.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees welcomed the draft law although its senior European Affairs Officer, Johannes Van Der Klaauw, said that the "devil will be in the detail during negotiations with member states".

He added that "a common definition of who qualifies and who does not is, in our view, the core of a common asylum system. Early agreement on this text would be very welcome".

The UNHCR is particularly pleased that the Commission's definition of asylum includes people who are suffering at the hands of third parties – if the state is unable or unwilling to provide protection. Germany is one country which will not give asylum under these circumstances, making it difficult for refugees fleeing from armed opposition groups, such as in Somalia or Sri Lanka.

Because of the international differences of how to define a refugee, British courts have blocked use of the Dublin Convention which allows the UK to return asylum-seekers to the European country which they entered first.

Persecution on the grounds of gender or sexual orientation is also recognised by the Commission draft, and the proposed law obliges governments to give help to those who have undergone torture, rape, or other serious forms of violence.

Brussels wants to lay down the minimum rights and benefits for refugees and for those who receive the less advantageous status of "exceptional leave to remain".

Although Britain and Ireland have an opt-out on justice and home affairs issues, the UK has voluntarily adopted earlier EU measures on asylum and is expected to back the bid for common standards. Getting approval in Germany and France may be more difficult and experts believe that negotiations could take a year.

Other measures have been put forward by Mr Vitorino including encouraging European countries to admit some refugees legally to help fill labour shortages.