Justice and interior ministers from 25 current and prospective European Union states have reached agreement in principle on some key asylum rules.
Lubbers: 'International law is under pressure'
Ireland, which holds the EU presidency, said the deal would harmonise national rules on who can apply for asylum.
But the ministers failed to agree on how to deal with unsuccessful asylum applications.
Refugee agencies had raised concerns that the new rules would endanger refugees and breach international law.
Correspondents say the deal is important, because asylum has become a key political issue in the European Union, with anti-immigration parties recently gaining ground.
Some states rejected proposals allowing failed asylum applicants to be deported to non-EU countries regarded as safe.
The rules will cover both refugees and others deemed to be needing protection.
The agreement also defines minimum social and health benefits for refugees.
Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell said: "These [rules] will offer protection to refugees and others in need of protection... and will help to build confidence in our individual asylum systems."
Sweden's Aid and Migration Minister Barbro Holmberg hailed the agreement as a major step forward in harmonising EU law in the sensitive area.
"In the context of enlargement, the new member states will have to introduce laws on who needs protection based on this [deal]. It will effect legislation in many states, that is clear."
She rejected criticism from campaigners such as Amnesty International and the
European Council for Refugees and Exiles that the EU wanted to adopt rules which would allow them to send refugees to non-EU countries where they could face persecution.
She said all EU states were bound by international conventions and that the proposed rules were based on these.
The head of the United Nations' refugee agency has warned lives may be at risk by the new asylum rules.
On Monday, Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the proposals could breach international law.
He said the EU proposals flew in the face of commitments made by the member states to protect the right to seek asylum while they harmonised national policies.
Talks on a common EU immigration and asylum policy have been going on for six years.
The ministers' next meeting is not due until the end of April, just before the self-imposed deadline of 1 May, when 10 new countries will join the EU.