"Growth and jobs are not things government can buy or summon," Van Rompuy said.
He said that the EU's economic policies of the past few years are paying off. But for many, that progress is painfully hard to see.
Unemployment across the 17 EU countries that use the euro rose to a record 11.9 percent during January, from 10.8 in the previous year. Youth unemployment is also continuing to rise unabated, peaking at 24.2 percent.
Yet the scope for action is limited. Most leaders remain committed to reducing public debt quickly, primarily through spending cuts and raising taxes.
This has led to increasing calls for an end to austerity, replacing it with a push for growth.
"Deepening the recession by dogmatically implementing austerity policies makes no economic sense whatsoever," said European Parliament President Martin Schulz.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was not unusual that the benefits of the EU's policies were not yet being felt.
"There often is a much longer lapse of time between the implementation and the reforms, for example for growth and employment to increase," she said.
She said that framing the debate as one between growth on the one hand and austerity on the other was a false division.
"Budget consolidation, structural reforms and growth are not contradictions but require each other," she said. "It is necessary to trim the deficits to promote growth and investment."
The two-day EU spring summit, which will stretch into Friday, traditionally centers on the economy, and peaking unemployment has given it special urgency.
"No leader can be happy with the situation where 26 million people are out of work in the European Union. That is why we are here," said Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
However, the leaders have not yet offered an alternative to the fundamentals of the austerity policies â¿¿ even though some appear ready to temper some of the measures.